Parliament: Civil Service: Undercover inspectors to check on officials

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UNDERCOVER inspectors are to pose as members of the public to crackdown on inefficient civil servants, the Government announced yesterday.

Ian McCartney, the Cabinet Office Minister, said independent teams of "mystery callers" would ring telephone hot lines operated by officials to monitor the quality of help offered to millions of people.

The plans, part of Whitehall's drive to boost standards in the 264 calls centres run by the public sector, will aim to ensure people are not bounced from one department to another by ensuring staff answer most queries straight away.

Performance targets will be set to ensure customer service is "accessible, speedy and helpful," while other initiatives could see the introduction of round-the-clock advice.

At present 5,552 staff work in government call centres, handling 53,000 million calls a year on everything from vehicle licensing to benefits, and the booming sector is expected to grow rapidly in coming years. Ministers say there will be more people working in call centres than there are teachers and farmers by 2002.

Launching the document, Mr McCartney said the Government also wanted to improve conditions for call centre staff by ensuring adequate training. A report would be commissioned on pay, working conditions, health and safety advice, motivation, and job enjoyment, he added.

"It is vital we ensure decent standards for both citizens and staff across the public sector," Mr McCartney said. "Research has shown 72 per cent of people prefer to deal with the Government by phone compared with other electronic means."

He cited the success of NHS Direct, where advice on ailments is given over the phone by nurses, in "giving people faster and easier health advice."