How government cuts led to blunders in complex criminal compensation awards
The government's obsession with cutting Whitehall staff is always portrayed by ministers as getting more " value for money" and greater efficiency. No doubt it will be said again when the remorseless reduction continues over the next two years.
Yet this year's crop of annual reports has produced a vignette from one Whitehall body that nobody knows much about which rather disproves this case.
The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority is not well known but for those who suffer serious injury it is vital to ensure they receive some compensation for an injury that is no fault of their own. They include British victims of terrorist attacks including recently those injured in Paris and Tunisia and the families of those killed.
Most of its payouts are routine based on a tariff which was already reduced to save public money by Chris Grayling when he was justice secretary.
But for 10 per cent of claimants their cases are complex and they need a detailed assessment by Whitehall staff. It is these that have gone wrong.
As I wrote in Tribune this month the situation came about through staff cuts and people quitting the agency because of stress caused by their workload. The agency admits it itself.
It’s annual report for the last financial year says: “This issue … is the consequence of an exceptional level of staff turnover in 2015-16, that has resulted in a reduced level of resources across increasing workloads. This situation is now being rectified with a major recruitment exercise underway.”
The errors were originally found when the National Audit Office, Parliament’s financial watchdog, ran a spot check on payments made to victims in complex cases.
The worst case involved a significant overpayment of £69,023 on an award of £356,964 due to a maths mistake by a caseworker.
Another case revealed a potential underpayment of £15,118 on an award of £69,976 on a case involving two linked claims for dependency.
Other mistakes included underpayments of £80 on a £395,727 award, £1,463 on a £113,071 award, and overpayment of £42 on a £445,355 award.
The NAO investigation triggered an internal inquiry by the agency which found even more errors. The CICA has now ordered a review into its practices.
The report says : “CICA tested a further 98 complex cases, based on a random sample selected by the NAO, and found 17 errors; 8 overpayments and 9 underpayments. These included three errors over £10,000 and four errors of under £80 on sample of cases with a combined value of over £5 million.”
The CICA took its time to reply to me and had to be pressed to admit that while it was refunding those who had been shortchanged it had no power to claim back money it had overpaid. Good news for those who got more cash but hardly an efficient way to run a service.It also stressed that it was only a relatively small number of people and not a huge part of its budget.
But this is not the point. For the individual suffering some damaging injury an underpayment of £15,000 is not a sum of money they won't miss.
There is also a much wider point. Civil service cuts have also led to people being underpaid benefits, short changed on taxes and the bad handling of cases by public bodies. Cuts being imposed next include the Equality and Human Rights Commission losing lower paid case workers - meaning it will either cut the number of cases it handles or open the risk of stressed staff making mistakes. None of this seems to affect the higher paid.
The government should realise that it can't magic savings in public services without any consequences for the general public. Something I suspect they won't want to know as it damages their belief that austerity doesn't matter.