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Mr. Frank Field: With the leave of the House, I would like to make one observation. Wherever possible, we politicians should not put our sticky fingers into people's private lives. When we have to, where children are concerned, we have a paramount duty to listen carefully to those who are affected by those measures. Please do not let the House think that even if we make sweeping reforms this time, we will have solved the problem. Life is far too complicated to fit into the simple models that we pass in this Chamber.
The debate was concluded, and the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings was deferred.
Motion made, and Question proposed ,
That a sum not exceeding £4,277,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, for or towards defraying the charges for the year ending on 31 March 1996, for expenditure of the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Health Service Commissioners for England, Scotland and Wales on administrative costs.-- [ Mr. Robert G. Hughes. ]
Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth): I welcome this debate; the first since 1991. Clearly that is far too long an interval and the House should be given greater opportunity to consider the work of the Parliamentary and National Health Service Commissioners, especially since the duties and the powers and responsibilities of the former have indeed been considerably increased.
Currently, the posts of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the National Health Service Commissioner are held by one and the same man--a case of two persons in one being, or as I have heard him described, the dynamic duo. It may be for the convenience of the House and for the purpose of brevity were I to use the more common name, the ombudsman, as I refer to those posts in my speech.
I shall briefly outline some of the powers and duties of the ombudsman. The office of ombudsman was created in the United Kingdom in 1967. Since that time, his role has evolved and changed. Therefore, I shall first refer to the parliamentary ombudsman. The Select Committee, of which I have the honour to be chairman, is responsible for some of changes which are now taking place to the ombudsman's duties. Let me immediately pay tribute to Mr. William Reid, the current holder of the office. [Hon. Members:-- "Hear, hear."] I am delighted to hear hon. Members across the Chamber agreeing with that general sentiment. He brings to his position an enormous capacity for hard work and a great insight into the workings of Government. Under his careful direction, the office has grown as the work load has increased. I have discovered that he has a very sturdy Scottish independence of mind, which has been of particular benefit to English complainants.
This may be an appropriate opportunity to mention Mrs. Jill McIvor, the Northern Ireland ombudsman, who does sterling work in the Province, often in extremely
Column 1126difficult circumstances. The House may wish to know that from time to time we visit the Northern Ireland ombudsman to take evidence. The workload of the Select Committee has substantially increased over the past two years or so. The Committee now meets once or twice each week. Evidence has been taken from a range of Ministers, from the Secretary of State for Health to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It has also taken evidence from the Legal Aid Board, the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Inland Revenue and many others. The Committee, in its first report in the past Session, has undertaken the most comprehensive study for some 25 years into the powers, work and jurisdiction of the ombudsman. Our report was published on 13 January this year; a more auspicious date than perhaps it may sound. I am pleased to advise hon. Members that the Government have accepted many of the report's recommendations, and they are contained in our fifth report of last Session. They are designed to reform the way in which the ombudsman is appointed and his office financed and also to ensure that all Government Departments learn from the ombudsman's reports.
The principal recommendations were that Government and Parliament would meet the requirements for the funding and resources necessary for the ombudsman's enlarged responsibilities. I know that the House will welcome the information that the PCA's cash limit was increased to more than £5 million for 1993-94 and for 1994-95 it will rise to some £9.5 million. That additional figure will take into account the PCA's much enlarged responsibility.
The Committee recommended that the two offices of the parliamentary ombudsman and the health service ombudsman should continue to be held by the same person. I must, however, strike a warning note for, as the workload increases, it may at some time in the not too distant future be necessary to split the two offices so that the responsibilities are no longer borne by one office holder. The Government also agreed that the relevant statutes should be amended to refer to "the Parliamentary Ombudsman" and "the Health Service Ombudsman". I know that that helpful clarification will be much appreciated both inside and outside the House.
The Committee recommended that
"the Government introduce legislation to meet the expenses of the Office from moneys voted directly by Parliament on estimates prepared by a `Public Administration Commission'."
I am delighted to say that the Government have agreed to accept that recommendation, and will amend the statutes as opportunity presents itself. The Committee also recommended
"that epitomes of the Parliamentary Ombudsman's reports be circulated by the Office of Public Service and Science to all Government departments".
The Government accepted that recommendation, too. In his response, my hon. Friend the Minister may wish to refer to a development that was welcomed by both the Select Committee and the Government. The Committee suggested that the public bodies and departments reported upon should be required to publish a report to the ombudsman describing ways in which identified maladministration has been rectified. I am happy to say that that suggestion, too, was accepted.
Column 1127The House will appreciate that time permits me to mention only a small number of the Committee's recommendations; and those who want more detailed information must refer to its reports. I have received correspondence about the recommendations from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which relate to the recommendations that will be published in our first special report of this Session.
Not all has been sweetness and light. The Committee was somewhat disappointed when the Government rejected its request that a debate be held each Session on the work of parliamentary, health service and Northern Ireland ombudsmen. I believe that, in that instance, the Government's action was somewhat short-sighted, and did not acknowledge the ombudsmen's substantially increased workload and responsibilities. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), the Opposition spokesman, agrees with me; again, my hon. Friend the Minister may wish to comment.
It strikes me as anomalous that the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General is debated annually in the House, while the reports of the ombudsmen are not. Recent special reports issued by the parliamentary and health service ombudsmen have served to highlight the need for effective scrutiny and standards of administration in the public service, to which my hon. Friend the Minister may wish to refer.
Not content with merely making recommendations to Government, the Select Committee also made six specific recommendations to the parliamentary ombudsman. The most important referred to the length of investigations: the Committee urged the ombudsman to make
"every effort . . . to reduce still further the time taken . . . to meet the nine months target."
The ombudsman fully shared the Committee's objectives, but made the point-- which I know to be valid--that the matters that he investigated were complex and contentious, dealing with the seeking of redress, and could stretch over many years.
The Committee also recommended
"that the Ombudsman's Office conduct a survey into public awareness of the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman and Health Service Ombudsman",
"a `consumer satisfaction' survey be conducted into the attitudes of complainants who have had their cases investigated by the Ombudsman."
The ombudsman responded by saying that he always sought, through the media, to improve public awareness of his office and the way in which it provides a service to the public.
I am happy to say that the Government accepted the Committee's recommendation that the ombudsman's office produce publications on good administration. That, the Committee said, would have the dual aim of publicising the ombudsman's work and improving administration.
The Committee conducted a major survey of the attitude of Members of Parliament to the ombudsman's work. Some 333 Members responded, and 79 per cent. said that they considered the work and record of the PCA to be either very successful or quite successful. What the Committee found more worrying was the reply to the question, "How often do you refer complaints to the PCA?" We were dismayed to learn that only eight Members of Parliament frequently did so, that 174
Column 1128sometimes did so and that no fewer than 150 --45 per cent. of those who responded--seldom or never did so. I found that particularly worrying, because it may mean that Members of Parliament are still unaware of the assistance that is readily available to them from the ombudsman--and, through them, to their constituents.
Let me say to hon. Members who fear that the ombudsman may weaken or impair the relationship that exists between an individual Member of Parliament and his constituents that that will not happen. All Members of Parliament naturally defend that relationship, and pursue constituents' cases with the utmost vigour; but the ombudsman provides a Rolls-Royce service that is truly invaluable, especially in the difficult and protracted cases with which we must all deal from time to time. He has the facilities for detailed examination that are denied to the individual Member of Parliament, with his secretary and researcher.
The Select Committee devoted considerable time to the issue of the "MP filter"--the device that ensures that a complaint can be passed to the PCA only by the Member of Parliament involved. After considerable deliberation, it was decided that the filter should be retained. Let me add a note of warning, however: the justification for its retention will be damaged if more Members of Parliament do not refer cases to the PCA.
It may now be instructive to turn to the ombudsman's report for 1993. Some 208 investigations were completed in that year; we discovered that that was the highest number for some 12 years. The number of complaints referred to the ombudsman by Members of Parliament was 986--the highest number for some 13 years. Paradoxically, however, the number of Members of Parliament referring complaints fell: 31 fewer than in the previous year.
The PCA reported that the number of complaints under investigation at the end of 1993 was some 333--the highest number ever. The increased work load meant, however, that the length of time taken to complete an investigation increased to 13 months. I know that that was a source of disquiet to both the ombudsman and the Select Committee. They found the increase in the time taken to resolve complaints particularly disappointing in view of the nine- month target time.
A recent innovation was the publication of details of fast-track cases-- cases referred to the commissioner that did not require the full investigative treatment. They were resolved by an exchange of letters or telephone calls. At this point, I must pay tribute to the Northern Ireland ombudsman because it was her idea to introduce the fast track and it has clearly been accepted by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration.
Of the 208 cases completed in 1993, 107 led to financial or other tangible redress for the complainant involved. Of the investigations completed, 61 per cent. were found to be wholly justified while in 35 per cent. of cases the complainant was found to be partly justified. The House will not be surprised to learn that the ombudsman's "best customers" were the Department of Social Security and the Inland Revenue. They certainly
Column 1129generated a considerable number of complaints, which is not surprising as they impinge on the public to a much greater extent than most other Departments.
Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton): Before my hon. Friend discusses particular Departments, will he reflect on our constituents' satisfaction with the ombudsman system? The Committee heard no evidence to suggest that constituents were not able to find Members of Parliament to take up their grievances. Will he confirm that a constituent does not have to refer a matter to the ombudsman through his or her own Member of Parliament if that Member of Parliament is unwilling?
Mr. Pawsey: My hon. Friend is extremely knowledgeable in these matters and is an assiduous attender at Select Committee sittings to which he makes useful contributions. He is right in his supposition that it is not necessary for a constituency Member of Parliament to pursue his constituent's case. Should that Member of Parliament refuse to do so for whatever reason--there are justifiable reasons from time to time--it is usual for the complainant to write to the chairman of the Select Committee and for him to pursue the case. Members of the Select Committee often see tangible expressions of pleasure displayed by complainants because of the way in which their cases are handled. I am thinking especially of health service cases when the Committee takes evidence from various witnesses, usually health authorities. As colleagues will know, the complainants are often in the Committee Room listening to the discussion and often make it clear that they are pleased with the Committee's response. In 1993, four special reports were published. That is the largest number ever issued by the ombudsman in a single year. A special report is currently being produced on the Child Support Agency, which was the subject of an earlier debate today. It will be published early next year. The Select Committee has been concerned for a considerable time about the fairly obvious maladministration within the CSA and I am certain that the ombudsman's report will have a substantial bearing on any future agency reforms.
The Select Committee also decided to set up thematic inquiries, the first being on redress. It will be recalled that the citizens charter promises
"better redress for the citizen when things go wrong". The Committee therefore invited a number of Departments and other bodies to submit memorandums describing their practices with regard to redress. Additionally, those memorandums were supplemented by oral evidence. The report will shortly be produced and will certainly serve to highlight the many anomalies that we discovered between the various Departments as to how they regard redress and the way in which the anomalies could be resolved.
Further examples of the additional workload accepted by the PCA and the Select Committee have emerged from the White Paper on open government which was published in 1993. The House will recall that it introduced a non- statutory code of practice on access to Government information. The code establishes the right of citizens to request information from Departments relating to their policies, actions and decisions. It is policed by the Parliamentary Commissioner.
Column 1130When my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster he said: "Citizens will thus have an independent investigator working on their behalf. The ombudsman will be able to report to Parliament if he finds that information has been improperly withheld".
The White Paper also specified, perhaps somewhat unusually, a role for the Select Committee in the operation of the code. My right hon. Friend said:
"The Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration will be able to call Departments and Ministers to account for failure to supply information in accordance with the code, as they can now call them to account for maladministration and injustice."
One of the key issues in the freedom of information debate is, of course, enforcement and it is clear that both the ombudsman and the Select Committee have a key role in the enforceability of the code itself.
One of the fundamental differences between the two offices is the fact that the Health Service Commissioner may receive complaints directly from a member of the public. It is not necessary for complaints to be fed to him by a Member of Parliament. That is an extremely important distinction. As the House will appreciate, it means that there is no "MP filter" in the operation of the Health Service Commissioner. May I say how delighted I am that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) is here tonight in his usual place. His presence is a sign of the importance that Departments attach to the ombudsman's reports.
I found it especially significant that, in his report for 1993-94, the ombudsman said:
"Almost every ombudsman has found in recent years an increase in the complaints referred. We live in a querulous and questioning age but it is noteworthy that the level of complaint against the NHS is still remarkably low when judged against the enormous numbers of admissions to hospitals for in-patient or day treatment. In 1993-94 more complaints were sent to me than in any year since the Health Service Commissioner was called into being".
To put that in perspective, I think that I am right in saying--the Under- Secretary will correct me if I am wrong--that something like 8 million people were treated in NHS hospitals in that time. In a memorable turn of phrase, which I know that colleagues will remember, one witness who came before the Committee said:
"Complaints are `jewels to be treasured'."
The Select Committee and the ombudsman have seen many jewels over the past two years. However, it should be remembered that complaints serve to ensure that citizens receive better service.
While taking evidence we too often found that there was a defensive attitude towards complaints. People who come before the Committee should understand that we recognise that no one is perfect, and a little less defensiveness and a little greater acceptance of fault would go a long way.
Members of the Committee were concerned about the attitude occasionally displayed by bureaucrats, who sometimes seemed so wrapped up in their own armour that they would not accept, or did not appear to accept, some of the criticisms levelled against them. I found one specific case especially disturbing, and it might be helpful if the Committee made representations directly to the Secretary of State about it.
Column 1131Interestingly, the review committee set up by the Government under the chairmanship--
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Bowis): I am sure that the Secretary of State would be pleased to receive such a communication, because it is her wish, and that of the NHS, that every case be looked at and lessons learnt. As evidence of that, I can tell my hon. Friend that the commissioner's latest report will be going from the chief executive of the NHS to every health service chief executive in the country--as an early Christmas present, perhaps.
My hon. Friend has been kind enough to intervene in my speech and talk about the circulation of the report. Circulation of the report is one thing, but perhaps he can tell me how we can ensure that notice is taken of its contents. Like my hon. Friend, I believe that the reports could do much to improve the quality and the standard of the service that patients receive in hospital. But if that is to happen, it is of paramount importance that the reports be read, studied and digested, and that their findings be implemented. If that does not happen, there is no point in producing them.
I was about to mention the review committee set up by the Government under the chairmanship of Professor Alan Wilson, which suggested that clinical judgment be brought within the ombudsman's jurisdiction. The same review committee, in its report published in May, supported the Select Committee's recommendation to extend the health service ombudsman's jurisdiction to general practitioners. We shall await the Government's response to our recommendations on the reform of the NHS complaints procedure. We revisited that issue following the report of the Wilson committee, and our further comments on the reform of the NHS complaints procedure are contained in the sixth report from the previous Session.
Much of the Select Committee's time was devoted to obtaining evidence from the health authorities that figure in the ombudsman's report. Objectively, I must tell the House that some of the cases that we considered were truly appalling. At times it seemed that a contempt for the patient was displayed; some of the evidence obtained was dreadful, and there were times when I felt ashamed of the service that the complainant had received. If some of my hon. Friends are successful in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, they may wish to enlarge on that aspect of the Committee's work.
In his report for 1993-94, the ombudsman said that he had received a record number of new complaints, amounting to 1,384--an increase of about 12.8 per cent. on the previous year. He accepted 203 for investigation, compared with 164 in 1992-93. As a result, the time taken to complete investigations rose to 48 and a half weeks. In many cases investigated, the ombudsman criticised management for abdicating their responsibilities and for breakdowns in communication. The cases published in the report undoubtedly provide lessons for Ministers and senior management on the pitfalls that should be avoided. That comes back to the point discussed earlier; the public are certainly entitled to expect that the NHS will learn from the ombudsman's investigations. The epitomes of
Column 1132selected cases are widely circulated throughout the NHS and there is no excuse for health service managers not knowing of their content.
Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central): As my hon. Friend knows, members of the Select Committee see complaints covering a range of services, but does he agree that the national health service is unique in that complaints in that area are invariably about events that have affected somebody's health, or a relation's health, or even somebody's death? We must remember the importance of the subject matter to the people concerned. That is not quite the same with the Inland Revenue or any other service that, although important, is different in that crucial respect.
Mr. Pawsey: My hon. Friend makes a telling and valid point. He is right to remind the House that we are talking about human beings with feelings. There are times when I feel that we may lose sight of that, and I am delighted to accept my hon. Friend's point.
The health service commissioner published a special report in February, the first on an individual case. It was about the failure by the Leeds health authority to provide care for a man left highly dependent following a stroke. After about 20 months of acute care, the hospital discharged him to a nursing home. The commissioner found that long-term nursing care should have continued to be provided by the health service, so the health authority concerned was invited to reimburse the man's wife for the costs incurred following his discharge. I am happy to tell the House that that recommendation was accepted. In addition, the health authority undertook to review its entire policy on the provision of continuing care for such patients. I have referred to that specific case in some detail because it has important implications for the health service as a whole. I think that the Under-Secretary will agree that it is unacceptable for long-term patients to be discharged from hospital into the care of nursing homes purely on the ground of cost. I am delighted, although not surprised, to see that my hon. Friend is nodding in assent.
Mr. Bowis: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The case led not only to that particular health authority reinstating the patient so that he received the care that he needed and deserved, but also to my Department drafting a circular reminding health authorities of their continuing responsibilities in that regard. That has been out for consultation and we shall shortly produce a final version to be distributed so that people receive the care that they need and deserve from the health service.
I mentioned earlier the increase in the number of complaints being referred to the NHS ombudsman. There is a growing awareness of his existence, but I suspect that there are still many dissatisfied complainants who are unaware of his office. It remains a sad fact that some NHS authorities, and even community health councils, cannot provide the ombudsman's correct address. Some authorities do not make clear in their own procedures--that includes their leaflets--the patient's right to take a complaint directly to the ombudsman. I mentioned poor communication earlier, and there is little doubt that that is a major cause of complaint. I know that members of the Committee will recall, for example,
Column 1133a case in which differences of view emerged about who was responsible for telling a patient's next of kin about a deteriorating condition.
The Select Committee has long been concerned about the inadequacy of records. Sadly, that continues to be a source of great disquiet, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will take the point on board.
One of the intentions of the debate is to make Members of Parliament and citizens more aware of the work of the ombudsman.
Mr. David Nicholson: My hon. Friend just mentioned the lack of communication in the health service. As my hon. Friend the Minister is present, may I put it to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) that we hear much criticism these days about the number and cost of managers in the NHS. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely vital that that vast service, which spends more than £30 billion a year and which has so many staff, is properly managed and that there is proper accountability for mistakes, for communication and for dealing with patients and telling them what is happening?
Increasingly, there is less reason to suffer in silence. That applies to patients in hospital as much as to taxpayers at home. Those who believe-- there are many of them--that their particular case has not been handled correctly or that they have suffered maladministration, can obtain redress. In the case of the parliamentary commissioner, that redress comes through a Member of Parliament. In the case of the health service commissioner, the complainant can go directly to him.
Whatever route is taken, the ombudsman will ensure that the complainant's case is thoroughly investigated and that a detailed report of the findings is produced. It is the duty and responsibility of the ombudsman to defend and protect citizens against what can be a sometimes over-bearing and bureaucratic state. Justice is what the ombudsman is about--and that is justice for the citizen.
Sweden first acquired an ombudsman back in 1808. We managed to do so in 1967. There was a good deal of debate at the time as to whether we should acquire one. It is perhaps worth recalling those days to obtain a sense of the system about which we are talking today. An ombudsman system was recommended in a report by Justice . The Government of the day did not think that it was a good idea and set their face against it. A new Government were elected in 1964 and promised institutional reform. They embraced the idea of the ombudsman as part of that reform and passed the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967.
Although that legislation may seem to be an established part of the system now, and something to which we all nod assent and take collective credit for, it is worth
Column 1134recalling that it was a highly controversial measure at the time. I am trying very hard not to make this a partisan point because, happily, we have moved on from the days that I am describing. However, many people, especially among the then Conservative Opposition, thought that the procedure was a dangerous constitutional innovation. They thought that it would subvert the constitution and the relationship between Members of Parliament and their constituents. They also thought that it would damage the efficiency of government. During the passage of the legislation, that line was taken by the Conservative Opposition led by Quintin Hogg who said that: "the new machinery will undermine the position of the individual Member of Parliament vis-a-vis the Executive, and it will undermine his position vis-a-vis his constituents."- -[ Official Report , 18 October 1966; Vol. 734, c. 74.]
In the interests of fairness and justice, I should add that by Third Reading an educative process had taken place and, on behalf of the official Opposition, he said that he had become simply "grudgingly agnostic."
Mr. Lord: I am listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman. However, the position taken by the Conservative Opposition at that time was not necessarily a dishonourable one. In a sense, they were anxious about their role and anxious to preserve their responsibility as Members of Parliament. It could be argued that, by accepting the role of the ombudsman, a Member of Parliament's role, load and responsibility are lessened. In a sense, it is easy to look back in the way that the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) has done today, but I do not believe that the Conservative Opposition necessarily adopted the wrong position at the time.
The system involves major constitutional issues. The system may seem to be fairly dry and dusty, but it was thought to be a major constitutional innovation at the time. Indeed, it was thought to be threatening to the traditional way in which we did things. It was argued that there were traditional ways in which Members of Parliament took up complaints on behalf of constituents. They did that through seeing Ministers, questions and Adjournment debates. It was thought that they were adequate mechanisms and that to introduce an external element, albeit established by the House and filtered through Members of Parliament--a provision included at the outset for that very reason--would somehow be threatening and damaging. As I have said, we have moved on from there to such an extent that there are ombudsmen everywhere. Everywhere we look we see ombudsmen. Indeed, we have to search around for a collective noun to describe such a galaxy of ombudsmen. My best idea so far is to describe them as a complaint of ombudsmen, but I am sure that other hon. Members can do better than that.
There are public sector schemes like the parliamentary commissioner and the local government ombudsman, and private schemes such as the banking and insurance
Column 1135ombudsman. We also have mixes or hybrid schemes such as the legal services ombudsman and the building societies ombudsman. There are a variety of schemes.
Mr. Lord: I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman's flow, but I should like to take him back to an earlier point. I have just been advised that it is never too late to learn. A report of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in the Session 1993-94 contains a letter from Lord Hailsham of St. Marylebone in which he says:
"I was very critical of the Ombudsman system when it was first introduced. But, in its present form, I think it has justified itself and commands public confidence."
I will argue in a moment that we need to strengthen and extend the system. The point made by the hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) is a timely warning. People who might oppose such strengthening and extension now, may come back in 20, 30 or 40 years time and say that such strengthening and extension was right and that it was what we should have done.
Ombudsman schemes have proliferated. We have them here and there are similar schemes abroad. Almost every country has an ombudsman and they come in all shapes and sizes. The other day I heard that there is an ombudsman in Pakistan who sits with a great scoreboard behind him which registers the number of complaints with which he is dealing. He is always into the tens of thousands. As one watches, the scoreboard turns round as new complaints go through the system. We can see why this great contagion is sweeping the world. The state is very big and citizens are very small. Private corporations are very big, but citizens are very small. Citizens need help and ways to access the system to find redress when they believe that they have been adversely affected.
Sometimes the development and growth of the system is confusing. The Select Committee tried to take a fairly robust view about the use of the term ombudsman. We take a dim view of the fact that, despite our protestations, within the Government there was still as post known as the prisons ombudsman. We also still have an ombudsman appointed by the Government for housing corporations, despite the confusion that is caused. We much prefer the notion of adjudicators and adjudicator schemes such as the Inland Revenue's excellent scheme which members of the Select Committee saw this week.
Several factors distinguish the real article from imitations. First, ombudsmen must be independent. That is absolutely crucial. They must be independent from the system that they supervise and monitor. Secondly, they must be able to enforce their recommendations. Thirdly, they must be comprehensive. They must not deal with just a bit of the issue; they must have full access and jurisdiction. Those are precisely the attributes of our own parliamentary ombudsman scheme. If possible, ombudsmen should have another attribute--the ability to improve the systems which give rise to complaints in the first place. That has become an important feature of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Ombudsmen must be able not only to deal with individual complaints but to examine the systems and malfunctions which give rise to complaints. Just as
Column 1136we had the great booklet issued in Whitehall entitled, "The Judge over your Shoulder", to deal with judicial review, it is good that we are to have a booklet entitled, "The Ombudsman in your Files", to make sure that Whitehall knows what maladministration is and how to avoid it, based on the experience of the ombudsman system. We are dealing with a model system which has been outstandingly successful in enabling citizens--we must never lose sight of the individual dimension--to have their complaints against public organisations and great Departments of state investigated by an Officer of the House who has access to every person and every paper that he needs to investigate, to report, and to have his recommendations implemented. That individual approach is sustained also by the ability to address systems failures.
The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth rightly mentioned the disability living allowance and a case involving slaughtered poultry when the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did not want to pay but the ombudsman, in effect, made it do so. We should never forget that the official error concession does justice to every taxpayer in the land when the Inland Revenue makes a mistake. That came directly out of a recommendation by the parliamentary commissioner. We have heard also about the extremely important case of NHS continuing care, which has had a decisive effect on the debate.
We have an impressive institution and an outstanding track record, but we must now strengthen and extend the system, which means again having the arguments that we had in 1966 and 1967 when the original Bill was before the House. Many things that need to be done are mentioned in the Select Committee's comprehensive report on the functions and powers of the ombudsman. We have argued, for example, that we must put the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration into the same constitutional position as the Comptroller and Auditor General in relation to the House and his funding. In 1967, it was claimed that there would be an exact analogy between the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Select Committee sustaining that post, and the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Select Committee sustaining that post. It is a source of neglect and shame that that has not happened. There has been no parliamentary debate on the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration since 1991.
We have recommended that all public bodies need to come under the jurisdiction of the ombudsman. The principle should be that, wherever there is public administration--and thus, by implication, the possibility of public maladministration--the ombudsman's writ should run. We should turn around the legislation to define exclusions and not, as now, merely specify matters that the ombudsman can examine. That would be an extremely important change.
We believe, too, that the ombudsman should have power to initiate investigations. Again, that happens routinely in ombudsman systems elsewhere. It makes no sense to have to wait to receive a complaint when there is conspicuous maladministration. We have an instrument to investigate maladministration and we need to be more interventionist in using it.