What should have happened – the relevant standards
40. The overarching standard we have applied when considering these complaints is the requirement for good administrative behaviour. As noted above, the Principles of Good Administration codified pre-existing good administrative practices. The Principles of Good Administration explain that good administration by public bodies includes:
- ‘getting it right’, which includes:
- public bodies should act according to their statutory powers and duties and any other rules governing the service they provide. They should follow their policy and procedural guidance, whether published or internal
- public bodies should act in accordance with recognised quality standards, established good practice or both
- proper decision making should give due weight to all relevant considerations, ignore irrelevant ones and balance the evidence accordingly.
- ‘seeking continuous improvement’ which includes:
- using feedback to improve public services and performance.
41. In deciding what ‘getting it right’ would have meant in these circumstances, we have considered the following policy and procedural guidance and quality standards.
The Civil Service Code
42. This sets out the role, duties and standards of conduct for civil servants.
43. The first version of the Code came into force in 1996 and states:
‘This Code should be seen in the context of the duties and responsibilities of Ministers set out in Questions of Procedure for Ministers which include:
… the duty to give Parliament and the public as full information as possible about the policies, decisions and actions of the Government, and not to deceive or knowingly mislead Parliament and the public.’
44. Minor changes were made in the version published in May 1999, to take account of devolution. It states:
‘This Code should be seen in the context of the duties and responsibilities set out for UK Ministers in the Ministerial Code, or in equivalent documents drawn up for Ministers of the Scottish Executive or for the National Assembly for Wales, which include:
…the duty to give Parliament or the Assembly and the public as full information as possible about their policies, decisions and actions, and not to deceive or knowingly mislead them.’
45. Following a period of consultation, a significantly revised Civil Service Code was published in June 2006. Relevant sections include that civil servants must:
‘deal with the public and their affairs fairly, efficiently, promptly, effectively and sensitively, to the best of your ability’
‘set out the facts and relevant issues truthfully, and correct any errors as soon as possible’
and must not:
‘ignore inconvenient facts or relevant considerations when providing advice or making decisions.’
46. The Civil Service Code was updated again in November 2010. The content is largely similar to the 2006 version.
47. DWP has suggested to us that the Civil Service Code is not relevant because it ‘has not misled or deceived the general public or withheld information from the public’. It has also suggested we have interpreted the Civil Service Code as requiring government departments to notify the public about changes in the law.
48. It is not our view that the Civil Service Code imposes a duty on government departments to notify the public about all changes in the law. The relevant principle up to 2006 was the duty to give the public as full information as possible. In our view, the context assists in understanding what that duty meant in this case.
49. In this case, DWP itself decided the public should be informed about changes in State Pension age. Once DWP knew information was not reaching the people who needed it and there was more it could do, it should have done more to ensure the public had as full information as possible.
DWP’s ‘Public Information Policy Statement’ (the DWP Policy Statement)
50. The DWP Policy Statement is quoted in our ‘Trusting in the pensions promise’ report (2006). It describes the expected quality standard for information provided by DWP. It goes on to describe DWP’s duty to give information to the public.
51. The DWP Policy Statement states that all information provided by DWP should be ‘appropriate, relevant, correct, up-to-date, clear, concise and to the point, helpful and targeted’. For the purpose of this investigation, we understand ‘targeted’ to mean that information about changes to State Pension age should have been directed to, and tailored for, the people who needed it.
52. The DWP Policy Statement also states:
‘It is widely accepted that the Department has a duty to give information or advice [to] inform the public about any new policies and developments that may affect them and, crucially, keep them informed on a continuing basis of their rights and responsibilities. It would be unreasonable for the Department not to do this and it is clearly a necessary part of our business.
‘… The Department must take care to achieve the necessary balance of resource and effort between announcing changes and new policies and our duty to provide routine information. The common law duty of care means that any information we provide must be timely, complete and correct. The Department may also be held responsible if we give advice and someone relies on our advice to their detriment.’
53. We consider that the DWP Policy Statement applies throughout the period we are looking at. The language used, particularly the statement including that it ‘is widely accepted’ that DWP ‘has a duty’ indicates that this was not a newly introduced position, and that the duty pre-dated the DWP Policy Statement. The
fact that DWP had already been providing information (for example, by publishing leaflets about benefits) for some time before the DWP Policy Statement was issued further illustrates this point. We consider the statement to be consistent with the Principles of Good Administration.
54. The Courts have recently confirmed that DWP had no legal duty to communicate changes to State Pension age. We have considered whether ‘the duty’ referred to in the DWP Policy Statement was no more than any potential legal duty, and whether the Court’s decisions limit any requirements arising out of good administration. We do not consider that is the case. We say this bearing in mind that the requirements of good administration are not the same as requirements in law. What is required for good administration is therefore not limited by what is required by law.
The Benefits Agency Customer Charter
55. The Benefits Agency Customer Charter sets out the standard of service customers could expect to receive from the Benefits Agency.
56. The 1993 edition includes that:
- staff are trained to meet customers’ needs
- its offices will provide general help and information
- from time to time, advice and information points will be set up in places like shopping centres, hospitals, libraries and schools
- Post Offices display leaflets and claim forms.
57. The next edition we have seen was published in 1999. It includes that the Benefits Agency wants to provide a service focused on customers and that:
- customers can expect to receive advice and information that is accurate clear, full and helpful
- a full range of leaflets and other information will be available at its offices
- its staff will give accurate information and advice about benefits.
58. These standards are restated in the 2000 edition. The Benefits Agency Customer Charter became obsolete in 2002 because the Benefits Agency ceased to exist.
The Pension Service Customer Charter
59. The Pension Service’s Customer Charter sets out the standard of service customers could expect to receive from the Pension Service.
60. The Pension Service first published a Customer Charter in 2002. We have been unable to find a copy of that edition. The first edition we have seen was published in 2003. It says: ‘Our Customer Charter tells you what you can expect from the Pension Service from its launch in April 2002’.
61. The 2003 edition includes that the Pension Service:
- aims to put customers firmly at the centre of everything it does
- will ‘make sure you get the information and support you want, when you need it’
- will provide accurate information about basic State Pension
- will be helpful, fair and easy to talk to.
62. The Customer Charter was revised and reissued over the following years. We have seen editions up to 2008. The 2008 version appears to have still been in use in 2010. The core principles of providing a customer-focused service remained the same in each edition.
63. Our Principles of Good Administration say that decision making should give due weight to all relevant considerations. This means taking all relevant factors into account when making decisions, including any known risks. Relevant considerations in this case include what was known at the time about the need for timely, individually-tailored (that is, targeted) information.
64. For example, in February 2004, Andrew Smith, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, issued a press statement about the steps the Government was taking to empower people to make informed choices about working and saving for retirement. He said:
‘The decisions people make about retirement are among the most important they face. We all get a lot of information on pensions, but too often we don’t understand how it relates to our own retirement prospects. Government must help provide people with trustworthy, individually-tailored information that simply explains their situation and the options available to them.’
65. And a 2005 Pensions Commission report recommended that a core principle of pension reform should involve ‘significant pre-warning of changes in [State Pension age]’, so that people approaching retirement know exactly when they will become eligible to receive their State Pension. The report suggested at least 15 years’ notice be given.
66. Finally, the Principles of Good Administration say public bodies should ‘seek continuous improvement’ and use feedback to improve services and performance. This means that DWP should have acted on what research findings (feedback) revealed about levels of awareness of changes to State Pension age, what more needed to be done and how it should be done.
67. The standards and guidance we have quoted here can be summarised as saying DWP:
- had an obligation to provide the public with accurate, adequate and timely information about changes to State Pension age, given its duties set out in the Civil Service Code and the DWP Policy Statement, and the quality standards set out in the DWP Policy Statement, the Benefits Agency Customer Charter and the Pension Service’s Customer Charter
- should have taken account of what was known about the need for timely, targeted information when making decisions, and any associated risks
- should have taken prompt and reasonable action in light of research findings and recommendations.