Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence



  1.  My Annual Report for 1999-2000 provides a detailed account of the workings of my Office and the result achieved during the year. It explains how I continued to build on the changes in the emphasis of my work and in my Office's working methods and management to which I had referred in my Annual Reports for 1997-98 and 1998-99. The purpose of this memorandum is to bring that account up to date by describing what has been happening in 2000-01. Summaries of all cases completed during that period will be included in my next volume of Selected Cases, to be published in January; so too will be the full texts of 14 of those cases. My Annual Report for 1999-2000 includes examples from 313 cases I reported on during that year.


  2.  My workload in the current year as Parliamentary Ombudsman is numerically similar to that received in the equivalent period last year: by the end of November 2000 my Office had received 1,104 complaints, compared with 1,125 in the same period in 1999. The complaints are distributed across departments and their agencies, and other non-departmental public bodies in broadly the same way as last year, with the exception of a quite significant increase in complaints against the Inland Revenue, caused only in part by the transfer to them of the National Insurance Contributions Office. The proportion of cases going to a formal investigation is running at 19.4 per cent, which is 2.6 per cent less than the figure for the whole of last year; but we are resolving 16.3 per cent of cases quickly through informal enquiries, which is almost double last year's figure. Despite the fact that many of the more straightforward complaints have been dealt with informally, the time to complete full investigations is being maintained at around 46 weeks. This situation has been achieved by the near total elimination of the queuing and backlogs which have been such a problem for my Office in the recent past. Not all our difficulties have yet been resolved. There remain a few cases over 12 months old that we are finding hard to complete. As at the end of November there were 35 cases over 12 months old. While I expect that figure to fall substantially before the end of the financial year, we and the departments concerned still have work to do.

  3.  My Office is currently resolving matters, or issuing a statement of complaint to the department concerned , within six weeks in 61 per cent of the complaints received. The Office target is 60 per cent. There is also a target of resolving matters (or issuing a statement of complaint) in all but a handful of cases within 13 weeks. Forty-four complaints did not reach that stage within 13 weeks; but many of them were resolved shortly after 13 weeks without the need for a full investigation, which would have resulted in a much longer throughput time.

  4.  Last year I reported that in cases not excluded from my remit by law, I was continuing to lower the "evidential hurdle" and expected to start investigating a higher proportion of complaints. As from 1 April the screening and investigation directorates in my Office have been amalgamated; and we no longer make a rigid distinction, except for those complaints which are clearly not within my jurisdiction, between those which are accepted for further investigation and those which are not. My Office now makes such further enquiries as are necessary for soundly-based and just resolution of the complaints referred to it; and its product range extends from informal resolution right through to the most painstaking investigation, taking account of the wishes of the complainant, the response of the department concerned, and the facts of the case as they emerge. A much higher number of complaints are now the subject of an appropriate level of investigation. In the first seven months of this year my Office completed 128 full investigations, discontinued investigation of 43 cases in which a suitable resolution had been achieved in the course of investigation, and resolved a further 153 complaints informally. The resolution of those 324 complaints represents an increase of 30 per cent over the number of investigations completed and informal resolutions achieved in the corresponding period last year. In addition my Office has made enquiries into a further 70 complaints before deciding that nothing could be achieved for the complainants.

  5.  I have to say with regret that—certainly under present legislation—I do not regard the target of a maximum of 6 months for a full investigation recommended by the Select Committee in their Annual Report for 1997-98 (Session 1998-99, HC136 paragraph 9) as a realistic aspiration. Indeed, even an average of six months is probably unattainable. That is particularly so since the expansion of our product range. What would previously have been quick investigations, which helped to keep down average throughput times, are generally now either dealt informally, or the investigation is discontinued when a satisfactory resolution has been achieved. A much more accurate view of my Office's performance on throughput time would be to include in the calculation all cases in which my Office initiates enquiries about complaints, rather than just those which go to full investigations and not surprisingly tend to be more complex and time-consuming cases. Such a calculation for the first seven months of this year would show that my Office resolved 394 complaints (223 informally after enquiries, 43 investigations discontinued, and 128 full investigations) in an average throughput time 22 weeks.


  6.  In part, the difficulties in bringing some old cases to a conclusion are due to the fact, referred to in paragraph 1.10 of my Annual Report, that departments can be slow, either to respond to enquiries during the screening or investigation of a complaint or, more particularly, to respond favourably to my recommendations for redress in draft reports from my Office which conclude that maladministration had led to a still unremedied injustice. I do not receive large numbers of complaints against the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) but those I do receive can raise difficult issues. The consequences of maladministration can be far-reaching, affecting not just the individual complainant but many others too. That may help to explain why replies from MAFF to statements of complaint and my recommendations for redress are sometimes much slower than I would wish. This is an area where improvement is needed if the injustice complained of is not to be compounded by unwarranted delay in providing a remedy. What is hard to accept, or to understand in terms of management priorities, are the cases which do not appear to raise particularly difficult issues, but which take an inordinate time to resolve. Some MAFF cases have also fallen into this category. Departments and agencies have no excuse, in my view, for prolonged delays before they agree to provide appropriate redress once I have established that maladministration has led to an unremedied injustice.

  7.  Because the Department of Social Security (DSS), and its main agencies (the Benefits Agency and the Child Support Agency), feature in so many complaints referred to me, the conclusion of some of their main cases, not surprisingly, takes a long time. They have continued to play a part in helping me achieve faster case throughput times but there have been some cases to which they have not reacted within a timescale acceptable to me. In particular, in one case the Benefits Agency took six months from receiving my draft results report to agree to what in my view was an appropriate level of redress. I have been in touch with DSS about these problems and about possible ways of overcoming them, for example by allowing my staff direct access to agencies' local offices on factual matters. Currently I have a case still outstanding with the Legal Services Commission; it was in September 1999 when my draft results report first issued and I cannot yet be sure of a satisfactory outcome. Such lengthy post-investigation delays are unfair to the complainants concerned.

  8.  I reported last year that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) of the Home Office had run into serious difficulties following a reorganisation. In 1999-2000 I continued to receive a significant number of complaints against IND, but I was pleased to be able to report that IND were very ready to co-operate with my Office and to admit fault when appropriate. They also consulted my Office on the formulation of a scheme of redress for justified complaints. I welcome this.

  9.  The UK Passport Agency was another part of the Home Office which, during the summer of 1999, ran into severe difficulties caused largely by a backlog of passport applications. In spite of those difficulties only a small number of complaints came my way. That was in part because the difficulties were only short-lived; but I was pleased to note that another factor was that the Agency were able to resolve most of the complaints themselves by quickly establishing mechanisms for handling them and offering compensation when appropriate.


  10.  The number of complaints brought under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information was 23 in the first half of this year, compared to 30 in the whole of last year. The backlog of earlier cases was cleared; and the average throughput time for investigations was maintained at 23 weeks, a respectable figure but one which I still hope to reduce further.

  11.  Finally, in paragraph 1.7 of my Annual Report I referred to the review of public sector ombudsmen. I welcomed the review team's recommendations, and eagerly await the outcome of the government's consultation exercise. Early decisions on, and implementation of, the recommendations would greatly assist my strategic planning, and enable me to continue to improve the service I can provide to Members and the public.

M S Buckley
Parliamentary Ombudsman

6 December 2000

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 5 March 2001