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REPORT ON PUBLIC GUARDIANSHIP OFFICE

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Public Guardianship Office: protecting and promoting the financial affairs of people who lose mental capacity...
Public Guardianship Office: protecting and promoting the financial affairs of people who lose mental capacity

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.

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.

Head of the National Audit Office John Bourn said today:

'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.'

Minister with responsibility for the PGO, Cathy Ashton, said:

'The NAO has recognised the considerable improvements the PGO has

made to the overall quality of its service delivery since it reported

on the Public Trust Office, the predecessor of the PGO, in 1999.

'The creation of the PGO itself was a major step forward, but there

is no room for complacency. We recognise that there is still more to

do to ensure that the PGO provides the best possible service for its

clients, who are among the most vulnerable people in society.

'We support fully the NAO recommendations, and in many instances the

PGO is already taking action consistent with them.'

The PGO is already taking steps to raise awareness of its services

among the general public and practitioners most likely to be in

regular contact with its clients through the targeted provision of

information and publicity material. It is also developing networks

with public and voluntary sector bodies, including vulnerable adult

protection officers, and local pension service and Alzheimer's

Society staff.

The PGO has established a permanent investigations unit to

investigate potential concerns of financial abuse, following the

success of a pilot project in 2004. The unit works with local

authorities and police to investigate allegations of financial and

other abuse and arrange for remedial action to be taken in

conjunction, where necessary, with the Court of Protection. External

telephone referrals are made to its customer service unit and a

formal protocol and a dedicated hotline for professionals is planned

for later this year.

The PGO has already begun to reduce 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. It will be working to

ensure that it can develop risk assessment regimes for all clients

over the course of the year. The PGO will also develop plans over the

coming year to ensure that it collects and monitors information on

the mismanagement of clients' funds to enable it to assess the

effectiveness of its controls.

Baroness Ashton concluded:

'The timing of the NAO report is particularly appropriate given that

we are preparing for the coming into force of the Mental Capacity Act

in April 2007. The Act will include the creation of a statutory

office holder, the Public Guardian, and will dramatically alter the

ways in which the PGO currently works. We will be considering how the

NAO recommendations can inform the design of the new services and

functions that the Public Guardian will be expected to perform.'

Notes

The Public Guardianship Office, an executive agency of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, was established in 2001 and took over some of the functions previously undertaken by the Public Trust Office. The Public Guardianship Office is the administrative office of the Court of Protection and is responsible for implementing the Court's decisions. The role of the Court of Protection is to protect and to manage the financial affairs of people without the necessary mental capacity to do so themselves.

The Public Guardianship Office's focus is on overseeing the work of receivers who are appointed by the Court to look after the financial affairs of people once they have lost mental capacity. The appointed receivers are either lay people, for example a close relative, or a professional, usually a solicitor, or an officer from a local authority. In a small number of cases, around 250, the Court of Protection will appoint the Public Guardianship Office's chief executive as receiver.

The Public Guardianship Office also registers Enduring Powers of Attorney, a legal device through which a person whilst mentally capable is able to specify how their financial affairs are managed, and by whom, should mental capacity be lost. The Court of Protection's oversight of a person appointed under an Enduring Power of Attorney differs from that of a receiver in that the client's choice of attorney was made when the client had capacity. Once registered, an attorney does not have to submit accounts to the Public Guardianship Office unless required. Similarly, the client is not usually visited by one of the appointed visitors.

The Mental Capacity Act, which gained Royal Assent in April 2005, will provide a new framework for making decisions on behalf of people who lack capacity to do so themselves. The provisions of the Act, which are due to come into force from April 2007, will include the creation of a statutory office holder, the Public Guardian, and will alter the way the Public Guardianship Office currently works.

The National Audit Office and Committee of Public Accounts have previously produced a series of reports critical of the performance of the Public Guardianship Office's predecessor, the Public Trust Office, the last in 1999 (Committee of Public Accounts, Thirty-Fifth Report, Session 1998-99).

Notes

1. Copies of the NAO report are available here and an executive summary here.

2. The Public Guardianship Office, an executive agency of the

Department for Constitutional Affairs, was established in 2001 and

took over some of the functions previously undertaken by the Public

Trust Office. The Public Guardianship Office is the administrative

office of the Court of Protection and is responsible for implementing

the court's decisions. The role of the Court of Protection is to

protect and to manage the financial affairs of people without the

necessary mental capacity to do so themselves.

3. Receivers are individuals appointed by the Court of Protection to

manage and administer the financial affairs of a person who lacks the

mental capacity to do so themselves (whether through injury, mental

illness, or dementia). Receivers are often a member of the client's

family, although solicitors and local authorities can also be

appointed as receivers. More information on the role of the PGO can

be found on the PGO website at www.guardianship.gov.uk

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