Examination of Witness (Questions 40-56)
MR CHRISTOPHER LESLIE
THURSDAY 31 JANUARY 2002
40. I was thinking more in terms of your consultation documents. Which one are we likely to see first?
(Mr Leslie) I do not think they are related to each other in terms of making sure that one goes out before the other. When each is separately ready to publish, we will certainly try and do so. I do not have any particular reason to delay them.
41. Do you have any idea which one will be published first?
(Mr Leslie) On the Ombudsman, I do not want to get into the business of producing more papers for prolonged consultation. That might be an obstacle to swifter reform. We gave a commitment back in July that when we had detailed proposals we would try and consult. Whilst it has got to be genuine, I want it pretty rapid, and I do not want that to be an obstacle to the drafting of the legislative process. So I want to make very swift progress there, but similarly, on civil service reform too, I think there are questions in that particular field which are quite separate from Ombudsman policy. That is my view of it.
42. The truth is, though, that you are a "good guy" in all this, and the Cabinet Office are good guys, but there are "dark forces" that stalk the land who are less keen about these things than you are. Some of these dark forces live at the centre of government, do they not, and they are not awfully keen on Civil Service legislation and do not think that this Ombudsman stuff is much of a priority? Are the blockages not coming further down the supply chain?
(Mr Leslie) No, I do not think that is fair. The Star Wars conspiracy theory of dark forces is one that is certainly attractive to certain elements in the media, but I honestly do not think that is the case. The nature of government is that sometimes we have the frustration of time and how much we can get into parliamentary timetables and so on, and we do need to make sure that we apply ourselves properly to developing our proposals quickly. The effort and intention is certainly there. It is the nature of government as far as I can see.
43. It is the job of ministers to make decisions, and they are just not making them. There is nothing happening.
(Mr Leslie) No, I do not think that is fair.
44. Come on! Let's see it! You have new proposals. It has been going on since about 1998.
(Mr Leslie) You asked me for a decision on whether we should have a unified and flexible reformed Ombudsman to reflect the modern use of public services. I will give you a decision: yes, we do want to see that. You want a decision on whether we should have direct access for members of the public, whether we should get rid of the MP filter; my decision is that yes, we should. But if you are looking for specific questions that affect jurisdiction perhaps, we have to talk with other departments, engage in dialogue with people. These things do not come responsibly always very quickly, but as I say, my broad intention is to make progress as swiftly as I possibly can. That is my genuine hope.
45. The Chairman mentioned dark forces. I believe in dark forces, and I know where they live actually, but enough of that. Going back to the earlier theme that this is a government that wants to drive up standards, talks incessantly about the public sector being responsive to consumers, and yet the Ombudsman tells us in his latest annual report that the number of complaints to the Ombudsman has gone up by 7 per cent over the previous year. That is a huge increase, is it not? Why has there been such a huge increase in complaints? Is it because government departments are not firing on all cylinders, or is it because the people out there are being encouraged by the Government to look more critically at the services that they are receiving and are more likely to complain?
(Mr Leslie) Whilst we have not done specific studies, and I am not aware of any scientific conclusions that can be drawn, I think it probably is a combination of all those factors. There are more public services now than ever. There is more interplay between government and the individual. The citizen is these days more appraised of his rights to complain as well as feel he has power as a consumer, and chooses to exercise those. Why not? I think that is a perfectly reasonable way for the public to seek redress for any grievances that they may feel. Rather than just regard it as something that "they", ie the Government or higher establishment, are able to make decisions on and that is the end of the matter, I think it is perfectly reasonable that individuals have advocates they can have on their side to attend to some of those worries, frustrations and complaints. The Prime Minister, for example, talks of the four pillars of public service reform, and the first of those is higher standards of inspection and accountability. Having a reformed Ombudsman that reflects a modern public service is an essential component of that. That is why I really want to see us move forward, and I do not think we are being recalcitrant.
46. I should know the answer to this, but is the Ombudsman adequately resourced? I talked earlier about electronic record-keeping and so on, and I know from my constituency case work the number of people now getting in touch with me by email. You sometimes feel you are being overwhelmed by it. In many cases dealt with by an Ombudsman, they are really complex, and if there is this exponential growth in complaints, encouraged by the Government, because you as a consumer have rights, is it not going to mean a big increase in the staff and resources that go to the Ombudsman, or what follows the present system?
(Mr Leslie) An interesting example was when the councillor filter, where councillors had to sign off complaints about local government, was removed. There was immediately something like a 40 per cent increase in the workload of the Commissioner for Local Administration. If we change and have direct access for the public to the Parliamentary Commissioner, I suppose we need to prepare for a similar potential increase. However, I think there are also efficiency savings that can be gained by looking to rationalise some of the separate administrative functions within the separate Ombudsmen at present, and I am quite keen to make sure that the quid pro quo for reform is that we also get the efficiency in the rationalisation process as well. I think that is important. The money, you will be pleased to hear, does not come from government; parliament has a vote separately on the Parliamentary Commissioner's vote, although I suspect the Treasury have their opinion on it. But we will have to keep a very close eye on the question of resources.
47. It is unfair of me to fire this particular question at you, but what percentage of Ombudsman investigations take, let us say, more than a year to resolve?
(Mr Leslie) I do not know that figure, but I suspect there are some, and I know that myself. As all of us as MPs know, we have had cases that have gone on that have been particularly complex, and they can be very prolonged, and that is precisely the sort of issue we need to look at. If we can find a way of speeding up the adjudication process, we should look to do that. Sometimes the barriers are the MP filter, and getting back to the Member of Parliament. We are hoping removing that will speed things up in the adjudication process. There will also be other ways too. The conciliation/mediation approach will be quicker than formal reporting, but we have to make progress on that very quickly.
Chairman: On those wider issues of Ombudsmen, Ombudsmen resources and complaints, we shall explore those with the Ombudsman next time. Can I just give you the clinching reason why we need to sort out the MP filter? What the guidance says is that if your own Member of Parliament does not want to take up your complaint, you can direct your complaint through the Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, which means that I get every complaint in the land which has been turned down by an MP for whatever reasons knocking on my door. I am entitled to go and knock on Michael Buckley's door. I think it would be very good to get rid of all that.
48. I have a specific concern. I am quite concerned about the uncertainty on the Health Ombudsman given the general state of affairs and the importance to have national reporting on issues, and how that is to tie in with the other Health Service reforms that we are seeing. Whilst you have very skilfully answered all my colleagues while I have been sitting here listening, that it is all going to happen in the future, are you not working to any formal timetable? When can we expect decisions?
(Mr Leslie) I have my own internal timetable, which is to be making progress as swiftly as I possibly can. It is simply that. I have my own timetable, which is to make progress fairly quickly, and I have tried to be as frank as I can with the Committee on that because it is my earnest intention to try and get on with these matters as quickly as possible. I would like to assure you that we will certainly have a Health Service Ombudsman and a Parliamentary Ombudsman. I do have to take in balance the question about the new appointment process, but those decisions will be made very quickly. What I think is important is to take note of the comments that I have made in the memorandum, which do set out quite clearly my intentions in this area, but I will not want to waste any interim period before we get a legislative opportunity. I want to make sure that we do have an ongoing dialogue with this particular Committee. After all, my understanding of the formation of the genesis of the Public Administration Select Committee is that to mirror, to reflect the work of the Ombudsman is quite central to its foundation. I think this is a very fundamental piece of constitutional reform and we should not neglect it. More haste, less speed.
49. I think the argument would be that the Government's public service reform programme looks a bit top down-ish. It is managerial and targets, which is all very splendid stuff, but what it lacks is a bit of bottom-up stuff, basic stuff like: what do you do when things go wrong? It does not matter who provides the service; what do you do when things go wrong? Complaint systems, far from being marginal, are absolutely fundamental. The frustration that you sense around the tables comes from a lot of that, and this is a way of making sure that the whole complaint and redress system just improves for people in a practical way, and if the Government could see that that was absolutely integral to its public service reform programme, we could make speedier progress.
(Mr Leslie) I think it does need to be integral to the public service reform programme, and my intention is to make it so. You can write books currently on the complaints systems that exist in this country. Somebody once wrote one on that particular issue. What I want to do is to try and make sure that we have simple, clear lines of accountability, not just for policy issues that can come through parliament, but for those ordinary, day-to-day, administrative failings that will inevitably happen in our institutions.
50. In the context of the review, there are significant areas that are not covered by the Ombudsman, for example, parish councils. Will you take on board those gaps in the review and make sure that they are covered when you bring forward any legislation?
(Mr Leslie) The Collcutt review suggests that we should be cautious about making decisions on jurisdiction before we get in place our plans for reform, although we do not have any plans at present to extend to parish councils, because I suspect they are regarded as having relatively few functions and the public can traditionally seek redress more directly at the annual meeting. I would not say that those areas are entirely closed off at present, and I certainly want to look at that issue, because I can see ostensibly it does look somewhat anomalous, but there are historical reasons for that.
51. Coming back to the Home Office case, you say it is politically motivated, but the whole point about going to ask for information on access codes is that nobody should say to you, "This is a politically motivated request." The fact that it came from a Conservative Member of Parliament should be quite irrelevant. This was a request addressed to all departments. My understanding is that Clare Short provided this information but nobody else would. So it cannot go to the heart of government. The Ombudsman found quite rightly that there was no damage being done to the privacy of government to ask for the number of times this had happened. It was only a numerical request that was made, and the Ombudsman on public interest grounds found that there should be disclosure. The Home Office would not disclose. It is quite unheard of for an Ombudsman recommendation not to be complied with.
(Mr Leslie) In so far as the actuality of the complaint goes, I would say that the Government did have a disagreement with the Ombudsman on this occasion. It is a very exceptional situation for a number of reasons, and it is not part of the mainstream day-to-day work of the Ombudsman. It is to do with the monitoring of the code of open government as I understand it, and the Government felt that, on balance, the need to preserve internal frank and confident discussions between senior officials and ministers, as well as protect the privacy and private lives of ministers, did require an exemption action in this particular case. You say what harm would it do to publish the numbers of conversations between permanent secretaries and ministers? One reason I suspect is that those are not always formally recorded consistently across government, because many conversations are informal, and to say for some reason that a certain number of ministers had these discussions but this was the record in another department could easily be misinterpreted and cause significant harm to the confidence and trust in relations between permanent secretaries and ministers. But I believe that this is an issue that has subsequently been superceded by the far wider reform and improvement in the ministerial code of conduct in July, which says now that all new ministers must put in writing to their permanent secretary and have a discussion with their permanent secretary about their financial and non-financial interests where they may be perceived to have a potential conflict with any of their duties, and that, I think, overcomes the substance of that particular complaint. But that was the reason for the disagreement with the Ombudsman, as I understand it.
52. When the previous Minister came and spoke to us on the FOI bill we were considering, he told us that it was never the case that the Government rejected an Ombudsman recommendation, and yet here is the Home Office rejecting it.
(Mr Leslie) Ombudsman recommendations are, for good reason, non-binding anyway, and I do not think even the Collcutt review suggested that that should be changed, because ultimately ministers are held to account by Parliament, and if Parliament seeks to question a ministerand it can certainly do sothere are plenty of opportunities for that to take place. This was an exceptional case, and I do not believe it was particularly sinister in any way. It was for perfectly legitimate reasons, of not just privacy of individuals but also for preserving the internal frank, confident discussions that take place between senior officials and ministers, which have to have a level of internal protection, as I am sure you understand.
53. When the Freedom of Information Bill was going through, some of us were exercised by what was called the executive override provision, which is that even when the Information Commissioner has made a finding and a judgment about disclosure, there was still the provision there for a minister to override it, and presumably in a case like this, there would have been an override.
(Mr Leslie) The complaint was not framed in that form or through that particular piece of legislation. Parliament made its decision on that particular piece of legislation, but we are where we are. The disagreement did take place with the Ombudsman, but I think we have resolved it satisfactorily with a significant improvement and reform to the ministerial code of conduct.
54. Let me put this to you. When all these dreadful exchanges take place at Prime Minister's Question Time and elsewhere about these poor old women in the Health Service and other cases, these are demeaning exchanges, I think, and they do great damage to the political process. Why do we not just say, "For goodness' sake, we have an Ombudsman. We have an independent investigator of Health Service complaints. Let the Ombudsman look at this and see if something went wrong and make a finding"? Why can we not just be grown up about it?
(Mr Leslie) I think that is a perfectly reasonable assumption to take. I would not want to ever see a constraint on Members of Parliament seeking to get redress from ministers, whether it is for a policy reason or an administrative reason in Parliament, and that is a right that all elected representatives have. I think though that there are perfectly sensible and effective internal complaints procedures that can be exercised, certainly within the Health Service, and if those are exhausted and the individual is not satisfied and the complainant is unhappy, then of course they have the right to take that to the Ombudsman. That is how it should be. That would be the thorough and proper way of making sure individual cases are scrutinised properly. But, as you know, politics tends to intervene in certain instances.
55. It does. Finally, we are about to have a new Ombudsman appointed. We have in past reports of this Committee recommended that the appointment process should mirror that for the Comptroller and Auditor General, that is, that there should be some role for this Committee through the Chair of the Committee, as is the case with the PAC in relation to the Comptroller and Auditor General. As we are on the verge of an appointment process, and as this is an officer of parliament, could you have a look to see if you could bring these two committees into line so that we can have a very similar involvement in the appointment process?
(Mr Leslie) Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, precedes my involvement in parliament for quite some period, and whilst I used to be on the Public Accounts Committee, I was not familiar with the appointment process at that time. But I will certainly have a look at it. In so far as the appointment of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, certainly, whilst it is a Crown appointment, the intention is to work very closely with this Committee, and you as Chair in particular, and try and consult at every stage as far as we can. That is my intention.
56. Elizabeth Filkin needs a job. Thank you very much indeed for coming along this morning. It has been a very useful exchange. It is perhaps an opportunity also to pay tribute to the work of the Ombudsman. We were delighted to see the Ombudsman recognised in the New Year's Honours List. Because we are coming to the end of his reign, I think it is a moment to say what a distinguished period it has been and how grateful we are to him for his work.
(Mr Leslie) Absolutely, certainly.
Chairman: We thank you, and I am sure we shall see you again and talk more about these things.