Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)
MR CHRISTOPHER LESLIE
THURSDAY 31 JANUARY 2002
20. One area that I have always considered something that could be changed relatively easily, and this came up in the review body, is taking away the Member of Parliament filter. I have always found it is the one tier of bureaucracy which we could do away with. I do not see the need for members of the public to have to come and talk to their Member of Parliament before they can actually make a complaint. Surely that is something that could be pushed forward fairly quickly?
(Mr Leslie) I have thought about this a great deal because clearly Parliament could be undermined and the role of Members of Parliament is extremely important in checking the executive for administrative and not just policy criticisms. I think the time has now come to have direct access for individuals to the ombudsman and the filter of having to require Members of Parliament sign off is anachronistic and should be removed. As I say, it will require primary legislation in order to take that away. If it were possible to do it by other means, then I would certainly be willing to look at it. My advice is that we need primary legislation to do that. That is why I am quite keen to make progress.
21. The problem is that if that is in the original Act, it would require the Act to be changed for that change to happen. Could I ask you if you have now decided formally to split off the role of Parliamentary Health Ombudsman?
(Mr Leslie) I have. I think that the aim of reform should not be too prescriptive at a government level in terms of the workings of a new unified ombudsman body. I think if we have too many barriers between each different post, then that can be a bit complicated. My own view is that we do need to see rationalisation of quite a proliferation of ombudsmen in the public sector and that there are efficiency savings as well as benefits to be brought by working towards a more unified approach. Whether you take the view, as seems to be developing elsewhere, that perhaps a single ombudsman is the best approach, or whether you have a more federal or collegiate approach in terms of a commission ombudsman, which was broadly the thrust of the Collcutt Review, is a matter over which I certainly welcome advice and consideration. What I think is important is that we bear in mind when we are looking at new appointments over the short term that we keep our eye on the ball as to what the reform goals are in the long run, which is for those networks and bridges between all the existing ombudsmen to be enhanced rather than driven apart.
22. That is a splendid ministerial answer. The problem is it does not tell me what I wanted to know. Sir Michael is retiring in a few months' time. You are about to start finding a successor. If you are advertising for a successor, you have got to describe the post. At the moment, the post combines a Parliamentary Ombudsman and Health Service Ombudsman. You will have to decide pretty shortlyI think nowwhether to split or not.
(Mr Leslie) I am still considering that particular matter because I think on the one hand there is a need for greater expertise perhaps in the Health Service field, for example clinical knowledge and awareness, and, on the other hand, I am also conscious that we do want to see a rationalisation of the ombudsman system. I think there are clearly arguments on both sides about whether you should have an individual as a Health Service Ombudsman separate from an individual as Parliamentary Ombudsman. I have not formed my conclusion. I entirely accept that that conclusion will have to be made very shortly.
23. It will be, will it not? I do not want to make a meal of this but, as you told us earlier on, we are not imminently going to make progress on the larger agenda of the college of ombudsmen, integration and seamlessness and all that. You told us again about the conflicting balancing arguments here, and they are all very true, but it is just a decision that you have got to make: either you have two jobs or you have one. This is probably when you have to decide, is it not?
(Mr Leslie) It is clearly a decision I will have to make and I will make it when I have taken advice on the matter.
24. In our third report, which you will have read, we talked about areas of the public sector where the ombudsman schemes were undeveloped. I wonder if you could say a bit about those areas of the public sector where the ombudsman spotlight does not shine? In the report we talk about education and there may be other areas.
25. I think that the nature of the development of the ombudsman in the 1960s was a fairly radical step forward in terms of central government accountability, but there are a number of local functions or other issues where departments have decided to have a jurisdiction for complaints dealt with either internally or within a departmental structure. If you look at the list of ombudsmen that does exist on a large number of issuesa Prisons Ombudsman, a Gibraltar Ombudsman and a whole array of different ombudsmen, and they are not all ombudsmen in the traditional sense of the wordthat is one of the motivations for reform, that we have a bit more of an overarching approach that does cover a wider remit of the public sector in general. There is a tidying up job to be done but that is not to say that those internal complaints procedures or adjudication systems are any less effective because they are not covered by the independent ombudsman; that is just the nature of the incremental development of public services since the post-war era.
26. I am not just thinking about administrative failings; I am talking about driving up standards because this Government wants to drive up standards across the whole public sector. I just wonder if there were areas that you have already identified that could benefit from a greater involvement of the ombudsman or some other complaints body. Let me give you an example, and I do not want to upset the Chairman here. In higher education students tell me that the quality of some university teaching is lamentable. Students are now paying good money for their higher education but there seems to be no redress. Higher education seems to be one example but there may be others.
(Mr Leslie) I have not come across very many complaints that there are particular branches of public service delivery entirely outwith a means of appealing or complaining to an authority that has the ability to seek redress for those complaints. I am not entirely familiar with this sort of situation in universities or higher education, but I will try and look more closely at it now that you have raised it with me.
27. There is one other point, and it is about electronic record-keeping, which was flagged up by the Ombudsman in his report. Just how big a problem is it these days now that bureaucracies, and I do not say that in a pejorative way at all, are probably not using paper files but going over to electronic record-keeping? There must be some spectacular failures where records have just disappeared into the ether. It happens in private sector organisations; it has happened to me and it must happen in the civil service as well.
(Mr Leslie) I am sure there are cases, as with failings in paper and pen exercises, where there are problems with electronic record-keeping. I think the Ombudsman does need to have the ability to keep pace with those changes. There are many ways this can be done, and this is one of those issues that was raised earlier, things that do not require primary legislation to keep up this management question. The Ombudsman has the capability to look at keeping pace with e-government developments and the electronic means as well to look at records, and of course the data protection regulations should assist rather than inhibit that.
28. Coming back to this delay, I am intrigued. You started this off in 1998; in April 2000 you had another look at it, and again in June 2000. We then have the situation of the Civil Service Act and the Information Act. You are a pretty incompetent lot, are you not? You have not really got your act together at all on any of this. Who is not making the decisions and where? I think there are gaps here. We sit on a select committee trying to find information and this just goes on and on. It is like the magic roundabout; it comes round every two minutes. When are we going to get out of the cycle?
(Mr Leslie) It is very easy to
29. It is, and that is why I am asking!
(Mr Leslie) Believe you me, I am very keen to make progress as swiftly as I can. Genuinely, I am quite enthusiastic about reform. I do feel that there is a very strong case. The Collcutt Review was an excellent piece of work which to my mind proved the need for legislation but, as you will know, these issues cannot be done like switching on a light. They do require refinement in the detail. There are particular issues to do with jurisdiction or powers that I think do require detailed attention. They cannot be solved instantly. I do not have a particular Machiavellian reason to try and compete, if that is what you are suggesting.
30. No, I am not suggesting that. Let us just move on then and look in the memorandum at 7. You are saying that you want the ombudsmen to be able to resolve complaints rather than formally investigate and report; the Government wishes to develop an approach to public sector service based on pragmatism and the delivery of improved outcomes, such as characterised in its policies on best value in local government and elsewhere. Is that not a load of rubbish? You are trying to say that you are going to be able to solve this in a much bigger body; you are looking for all this together and then you are going to say it will be easier to solve things. Is that not a contradiction in terms?
(Mr Leslie) No, not at all. If you think that the only mechanism for solving an individual's case is by producing a formal report that has to be set in stone and in legislation and then published, then perhaps you deal with your constituents in a different way than I do. I think the modern ability to pick up a telephone and knock heads together is often as effective as writing down a formal report. Some of those legislative constraints on the ombudsman prevent that kind of work taking place. Yes, we should have an approach for reporting, and if necessary exceptional reporting, to Parliament, and placing things in annual reports as well. If it is a day-to-day case that can be solved with a few conversations and getting individuals together from government, then surely that is the common sense approach we should all take?
31. It is interesting you should mention constituents. You know what gets up my constituents' noses most? It is that big bodies or organisations like the Cabinet Office will not reply to letters, will not do things, will not carry out what they are asking them to do. They go to the Ombudsman and try to get things done but they cannot. If you ask me what the most difficult thing to do is, I say it is actually getting you guys, collective government, to move. Therefore, are we not just creating another multi-headed monster that is not going to be able to achieve what it sets out to do?
(Mr Leslie) I think the ombudsman is actually a pretty successful organisation at present. There are improvements that can be made and that is why we are trying to look to knock down a lot of those barriers that exist at present within such a large institution as central government. I do not think that it is something we should be embarrassed or shy about. We should be quite pleased and proud that we are trying to take steps forward in this particular area.
32. I do not disagree with that. I am just wondering how, in reality, it is going to work. We are still waiting for so much. We have all been promised that they are going to put this together. I just find it a little bit make believe at the moment until I see what is actually going to come out. I have been very patient.
(Mr Leslie) I am sure you have read the Collcutt Review and had a look at the memorandum that I sent out for you. These are developments where we have not been shy in coming forward and publishing what our intentions are. Those are plain for everybody to see. I would ask that we try to work in consensus and bypass things in a tripartisan way, that we get together and figure out what those possible areas of disagreement might be in a parliamentary sense and overcome them. That is a key task for this particular Select Committee to do. I want to work with you in order to make sure we can make progress very quickly.
Mr Liddell-Grainger: I have a feeling we are going to be talking again.
33. I have a couple of questions. Going back to the question of the Home Office, I am in agreement with the point you have just made: there are other ways of resolving problems rather than months and months of investigation. Lifting the telephone to do that is a good idea, but you are saying provided it is not the Home Office.
(Mr Leslie) No, I do not think I mentioned the Home Office specifically. I am not quite sure what your point is.
34. My point is: what chance have you got of them telling you something on the phone when they will not reply to the Ombudsman at all after months of trying?
(Mr Leslie) Which case do you have in mind?
35. The case we referred to: Robathan.
(Mr Leslie) I do not think there was a lack of response from the Government on our position. I think it was a disagreement about the outcome that we wanted to see. That is quite different from responding when the Ombudsman puts a particular point of view. In that particular case, it was a question of a request by a Member of Parliament to find out how many times Ministers had spoken to their Permanent Secretaries. The Government takes the view that internal decision-making is best served if we have trust and confidence and where officials and their interplay with Ministers is not going to be misinterpreted by constant disclosure. This is the nature of British government as we have it, and that was the decision taken, and we disagreed with the Ombudsman. That does not mean that we were not slow in putting our disagreement in the first place.
36. Did you not think there would be a concern that this would be a green light for departments to refuse to cooperate in the future?
(Mr Leslie) Certainly not. I think that was a particularly exceptional case when you look at the thousands of other individual ordinary grievances that members of the public bring forward and are investigated by the Ombudsman entirely disconnected from that; day-to-day, bread-and-butter work that the Ombudsmen get on with in a very successful way.
37. You will be aware that the Ombudsman presently is investigating the whole question of Equitable Life. Can you give the Committee a guarantee that he will have access to all government papers relating to the question of Equitable Life?
(Mr Leslie) We have had a few barriers to overcome, obstacles in the way of disclosing. Some of those have been related to various pieces of legislation, domestic and European, but I know that the Government certainly does intend to cooperate fully with the Ombudsman in his investigation of this, and we are trying to resolve those problems as we speak.
38. Are you going to make sure there is full disclosure of all papers to help the investigation?
(Mr Leslie) That is my understanding certainly of the Treasury's position and of the Financial Services Authority as well, yes.
39. You quite rightly mentioned the Collcutt review and all the good work that is in that. In terms of the Civil Service and the future of the Ombudsman, you have all that in front of you. You mentioned the difficulties of trying to get it timetabled and so on, but which piece of work are we likely to see first?
(Mr Leslie) As you know, the Queen's Speech takes place at the beginning of every parliamentary session. Decisions about which pieces of legislation are announced are taken before then. There are a lot of competing demands, not just within one department or organisation such as the Cabinet Office. As you know, we have competing political priorities across the whole range of health, education, transport and so on. Those are judgments that we have to make, because we only have a finite ability to secure parliamentary time.