Benefit and befuddlement

Issue 192 (June 2006)

Edward Graham describes the report of MPs on complexity in social security.

Introduction

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has published a report on the complexity of the benefits system.1 Last year, the National Audit Office (NAO) investigated complexity in the benefit system,2 and the Committee's report is primarily drawn from their questioning of senior DWP officials on the issues raised in the NAO report.

Stopping the 'drift towards complexity'

The Committee notes that, in response to the NAO report, the DWP has established a simplification unit as a 'counterweight' to the increasing tendency towards complexity, and that it will report annually on its aspiration (contained in its five-year strategy) to reduce the complexity of the benefits system. However the Committee concludes that more needs to be done by the DWP to prevent the 'drift towards complexity' continuing. The crux of the Committee's findings is that tackling complexity needs to be given a higher priority by the DWP, specifically:

  • At the moment, reducing complexity is merely an aspiration - there are no concrete proposals. It is not a key part of the DWP five-year plan, nor is there a PSA target for reducing complexity. The Committee recommends that a measure of complexity be introduced, and progress measured against it. (The Committee seems confident that such a measure, both of individual regulations and the system as a whole can be constructed.)
  • Someone in the DWP needs to take responsibility for assessing the implications of new regulations for the complexity of the system as a whole. The current system of parliamentary scrutiny of regulations does not do this, and so piecemeal complexity is almost inevitable. The DWP should provide parliament with sufficient information to asses the wider impact of new regulations.
  • The DWP's new simplification unit needs to have sufficient standing within the Department to be able to influence policy. A report on its work should be published annually.
  • The DWP's letters and leaflets still need to be improved and made easier for claimants to understand.

Most staff currently feel unable to advise claimants on areas outside their immediate responsibility. The Committee is troubled by the idea that DWP staff are not able, so not required, to understand the whole system, but in order to claim their entitlements and avoid overpayments, claimants are. It recommends that the DWP should consider introducing a statutory duty to advise claimants and ensure its staff receive sufficient training and are skilled enough to do this.

Comment

The Committee acknowledges that much of the complexity of the benefits system exists to meet complex needs. However, it is firmly of the view that a lot of unnecessary complexity exists and that it contributes to under claiming, overpayments and makes the system vulnerable to fraud. The officials who appeared before the Committee were clearly well aware that targeting and means-testing inevitably results in complexity, but noted that governments have policy objectives and concerns about costs that moves towards a simpler, less means-tested system would not address. It has not been possible so far to make a system as reliant on targeting and means-testing as the UK's is both user friendly and simple to deliver. Whether any of the current reforms are a step in the right direction is for the reader to judge.


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