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Since its creation in 2001, the Public Guardianship Office has improved the quality of information it receives on the stewardship of the financial affairs of people who lose mental capacity. It has begun to target its scrutiny, reducing the regulatory burden on some receivers deemed to be a lower risk, and in some cases where the client has assets less than £16,000 in value. The Public Guardianship Office needs, however, to do more to target its resources, focusing on those cases where the risk of mismanagement or financial abuse are greatest. It should also make it easier for people to report concerns about potential exploitation.

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The effectiveness of the Public Guardianship Office relies on having timely and accurate information on the welfare of its clients and the management of their financial affairs by appointed ‘receivers’. In 1999, the Public Guardianship Office’s predecessor, the Public Trust Office, was criticised by both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee for failing to ensure that a large proportion of receivers submitted annual accounts; and failing to ensure, through its visits programme, that patients’ funds were being used for their benefit. The Public Trust Office was also criticised for serious weaknesses in financial and management information across its activities.

The Public Guardianship Office has since improved the overall quality of service provided to its clients, particularly in relation to accounts collection and visits. Among cases examined by the National Audit Office, the Public Guardianship Office had collected over 90 per cent of the accounts due from receivers (showing in each case how they had used the patient’s money) within its target of six months, compared to 80 per cent in 1998-99. It had also expanded the number of visits to clients. The Public Guardianship Office estimates, for example, that the number of visits exceeded 7,000 in 2004-05 compared to 1,680 in 1997-98.

Today’s report points out that, with over 24,000 receivership cases to supervise, the resources the Public Guardianship Office can devote to scrutinising each case are necessarily limited. Even with a significant expansion in the number of visits, clients up until 2004-05 had been visited on average only once every five years, unless more frequent visits were judged appropriate by the court, visitor or caseworker. According to today’s report, the Public Guardianship Office needs to target its resources more effectively.

In particular, the Public Guardianship Office should make much better use of the information available to it to help direct its scrutiny. The Public Guardianship Office has sought to improve its knowledge of the nature of the risks it is trying to regulate by commissioning research, and collects a variety of information on individual cases. The Office currently lacks, however, an overall picture of the circumstances in which abuse or mismanagement most often occurs, how instances of mismanagement or abuse have been detected, and whether its regulatory controls are effective in detecting and remedying these problems. The source of exploitation may come from anyone in contact with the client.

The Public Guardianship Office has recognised that public awareness of the services it provides is limited and put a marketing strategy in place in April 2004 to raise its profile with other organisations and the public. In January 2005, it began to roll out a marketing programme across England and Wales. The Public Guardianship Office should continue to raise its profile and make it easier for people to report concerns. Relatives, friends, social workers and other professionals are, in many instances, well placed to spot the first signs of potential mismanagement or financial abuse but are not sufficiently aware of the Public Guardianship Office’s role in reporting concerns.

Building on its recent establishment of an investigation team, the Public Guardianship Office should improve procedures for receiving, evaluating and following up potential concerns that come to its attention. The Office has improved the quality of some aspects of its service, particularly over the last two years. Nevertheless, an inability to access case information quickly when receivers and others call with queries, and delays in dealing with some transactions, indicate that further improvements in quality of service are needed. The continuing lack of an electronic case management system – a planned system was cancelled in 2003 after difficulties in implementation – is inhibiting improvement and efficiency. The National Audit Office recommends that the Public Guardianship Office re-examine whether the current approach to organising its teams is best targeted at risk and meeting the needs of its customers.

"I welcome the fact that the Public Guardianship Office has improved on the poor performance of its predecessor, the Public Trust Office, which was criticised in a series of reports by the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee.

"The Public Guardianship Office must do more, however, to target its scrutiny at the cases presenting the greatest risks. It should also make sure that a larger proportion of the public and professionals know about its work and how to report concerns. The vulnerable people who rely on the Public Guardianship Office to protect their financial affairs deserve the best possible service."

Head of the National Audit Office Sir John Bourn


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