Select Committee on Public Administration Third Report


THIRD REPORT


The Public Administration Select Committee has agreed to the following Report:

OMBUDSMAN ISSUES

Introduction

1. Britain's ombudsmen have a vital role to play in maintaining and improving the quality of our public services. They investigate possible cases of administrative failure and neglect, seek redress for those whose interests are damaged, and play an important part in quality control of the public sector. This report examines in particular the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—now known as the Parliamentary Ombudsman—though it also touches on the way that office works with other bodies. It sets the Ombudsman's work in the context of the changing public sector and the need for it to adapt to the challenges of public service reform.

2. The first Parliamentary Ombudsman began work over 30 years ago. The office has a proud record of service to the public, recognised recently by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, who praised its "immense" contribution to "achieving justice and improving administration in both the public and private sector".[1] This Committee, which has responsibility for oversight of the Ombudsman, also pays tribute to that work. We especially recognise the commitment and dedication of Sir Michael Buckley, who retired from the post in November 2002. But this distinguished history cannot make the office immune from necessary change, and this report makes the case for that change.

The Ombudsman—The Background

3. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration was established by the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 and is independent of government and is not a civil servant. The Ombudsman is an Officer of the House of Commons, appointed by the Queen, and reports to Parliament, currently to this Committee under Standing Order 146. The Ombudsman considers complaints from members of the public that they have suffered injustice because of maladministration by government departments or public bodies that are within the remit set through legislation. A potential complainant should also allow the body they are complaining about the opportunity to respond to their complaint before the Ombudsman can consider undertaking an investigation. Currently, a complaint must be directed through a Member of Parliament (a process known as the MP filter). In 1994 the Ombudsman's remit was expanded to include complaints made under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.

The Review of the Public Sector Ombudsmen—A History of Delay

4. In 1996 our predecessors, the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration recommended "the thorough revision of the [1967] Act to remove the omissions in the Ombudsman's current jurisdiction, to implement the past recommendations of the Committee on the extension of his jurisdiction, and to ensure that the Ombudsman has comprehensive and effective powers".[2] Despite numerous reviews and consultations and general agreement on both the need for reform and on the basis for the necessary changes, the Ombudsmen system has not been reformed. We set out below the whole series of events. It is a roll-call of talk rather than action.

The Timetable of Events

  • October 1998 the public sector ombudsmen submit a paper to Government proposing a comprehensive review of the organisation of the public sector ombudsmen in England.

  • April 2000 'Review of the Public Sector Ombudsmen in England', or the Collcutt Report, published.

  • June 2000 the Government publish a consultation document.

  

  • July 2001 Government respond by way of a written Parliamentary Question agreeing with the review's recommendations and announcing that detailed proposals would be published in due course.

  • January 2002 Memorandum from the Government to the Public Administration Select Committee announcing that it will be undertaking a further consultation exercise.

5. In October 1998 the Local Government Ombudsmen for England and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Health Service Commissioner submitted a paper to Government proposing a comprehensive review of the public sector Ombudsmen. The major proposal from the ombudsmen was the creation of a commission providing a single gateway for complaints. The intention of this proposal was to remove the potential conflicts of jurisdictions existing in the present structures with their plethora of bodies. In addition, the ombudsmen said, uniting the various ombudsman bodies would provide savings through economies of scale and make the sharing of best practice more effective.[4] These changes would enable the ombudsmen to provide a more efficient and effective service to the public.

The Collcutt Review—a prospect of progress

6. In 1999 a review based upon the ombudsmen paper was initiated by the Government The review was led by a senior official in the Cabinet Office, Mr Philip Collcutt. This Committee undertook an inquiry into the issues raised and its subsequent report was its contribution to the Collcutt review process. The Committee concluded that change was necessary because of the increased complexity of the work of the public sector, which affected both the public and the Ombudsman. We supported the creation of a single commission, which should be "the key objective of any reform process". We criticised the MP filter as an idea which had outlived its time, and recommended that it should be replaced by direct public access. We endorsed the calls for a thorough review of the jurisdiction and powers of the Ombudsman, with an emphasis on increasing rather than reducing those powers. In conclusion we urged that the programme of reform should not be allowed to slip, adding that "We hope that restrictions on parliamentary time will not prevent an early opportunity being found for this important legislation to be enacted. It will bring important benefits to the public and should be seen as an integral element of the Government's programme of public service and modernisation".[5]

7. The review was completed in early 2000 and the Collcutt Report was published in April of that year. It was generally supportive of the paper submitted by the ombudsmen and of the recommendations of this Committee.[6] Subsequently, in June 2000 the Government published a consultation document based upon the findings of the Report.

A failure to Act

8. In July 2001 the then Cabinet Office minister, Mr Christopher Leslie MP, announced the Government's conclusions to the consultation through a written parliamentary question. He said that the Government was committed to "the renaissance of public services, improving access and delivery and driving up standards".[7] He added that the Government was satisfied that there was broad support for the review's main recommendations and that "We intend to replace the existing arrangements by a unified and flexible ombudsman body... there will be direct access to this body... proposals for the precise powers and accountability of the new body, and on whether its jurisdiction should be extended... will be published in due course".[8]

9. When the further details Mr Leslie promised in July 2001 did not seem to be forthcoming, the Committee invited the minister in January 2002 to explain the continuing delays. In a Memorandum submitted to the Committee prior to his appearance in January 2002, Mr Leslie said that: "It will not be possible to create the kind of flexible, dynamic and customer focussed body of the kind described above without primary legislation. It might be possible to make some of the changes needed by regulatory change, but the fundamental shift required to put all the bodies on a common statutory footing and remove the main procedural constraints to flexible working can only be achieved via an Act of Parliament".[9]

10. In his evidence before the Committee, Mr Leslie said: "We broadly concluded that we do need primary legislation in order to make some of these significant changes ... I do not have any particular desire to wait around or delay things ... As ever, we need to make sure we get time when the parliamentary timetable allows".[10] He also indicated that the Government was not quite at the stage where it had a draft bill to hand,[11] and yet he could still not indicate when there might be a draft bill for this reform: "The Government believe that the thrust of any new legislation governing Ombudsman functions in England will need to be constructed in a manner which places the primary emphasis on the successful resolution of complaints, rather than formal investigation and reporting, and that the new body should be encouraged to find less formal ways of settling cases quickly, and be able to make more use of techniques like mediation and conciliation where appropriate".[12] He added "these issues cannot be done like switching on a light. They do requirement refinement in the detail".[13] He indicated that he wished to use the delay caused by the legislative backlog to finesse the details of the bill. More than a year has now passed since Mr Leslie's statement. If a draft bill is close at hand, the Committee would welcome an early sight of it. The current minister, Mr Douglas Alexander MP, repeated in July 2002 that "the government remains committed consistent with precedent, but I am not able to anticipate when parliamentary time will become available".[14]

11. In its memorandum the Government also said "the manner in which the various Ombudsmen carry out their functions is heavily constrained by the legislation under which they operate, and there is a clear sense that the law in many instances is not helping Ombudsmen to develop new ways of working which are driven by customer need".[15] These words from the Government not only make the case for reform, but suggest that the failure to implement the widely supported reforms of the Ombudsman system are actually hindering the Government in achieving its priorities. This Committee supports the need for reform Without clear, credible pathways for complainants, public services will never be adequately reformed. We reiterate our concerns and once again recommend that the Government produce a draft bill to implement the review of the Ombudsmen and actively seek an early solution to the problem of legislative delay.

Worrying Trends

12. We now turn from the overall pattern of ombudsmen services to the work of the Parliamentary Ombudsman. The necessity of reform is clearly becoming more pressing in light of some worrying trends we identified during our inquiry. The then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson (now Lord Wilson of Dinton GCB), informed us in July 2002 of the rapid growth in the volume of correspondence that the government now had to deal with. He cited the quadrupling of letters to the Prime Minister since 1997 to half a million per year and the doubling of the number of parliamentary questions during the last Parliament.[16] This growth in public correspondence will, almost certainly, be reflected in more work for the Parliamentary Ombudsman, especially given the widely accepted view that there is a growing 'compensation culture'.

13. In the year 2001/02 the Parliamentary Ombudsman received 2,139 complaints, an increase of 24 per cent on the previous year and the highest figure on record. Despite the increased workload, only nine cases exceeded the thirteen week target for resolution and the number of cases resolved or for which a statement was issued within six weeks rose from 64 to 68 per cent on the year. That the Ombudsman was able to increase the office's performance while business increased is most commendable. In his annual report Sir Michael said that broken output records and lower throughput times were achieved through changes in working practices. However, he added "the service could be so much better if it were not for the restrictions and the cumbersome methods of work imposed on me by the PCA Act".[17]

14. Along with an increasing workload for the Ombudsman, we have heard disturbing evidence about routine administrative failure, departmental indifference and political intrusion into administrative matters. The worrying trends the Ombudsman has identified go to the heart not only of the operational capacity of his office, but also to the much wider issue of the quality public administration that citizens should expect.

15. When questioned about potential consultation with the Cabinet Office on his draft reports, the Ombudsman rather tellingly replied, "very few people in Whitehall know very much about how my Office actually works".[18] This problem may well be at the heart of the problems faced by the Ombudsman when dealing with government departments. When he published his annual report last year, Sir Michael said "We have noticed a tendency for departments to take a harder line and be less co-operative" adding that investigations into mismanagement by departments were "uphill work". He also accused officials of double standards in "imposing strict deadlines for public complaints while taking too long to sort things out when complaints were upheld".[19] We find it unacceptable that departments should be so casual about meeting their responsibilities.

16. The Ombudsman made the point that the length of time taken by the bodies with which his office is in contact, will inevitably impact upon the ability of his office to meet its own targets and improve performance. Instances where the Ombudsman requires information and co-operation from these bodies fall into three categories: investigations into a complaint, comments on draft reports from the body under investigation, and proposals for redress. In his annual report last year Sir Michael commented "I remain concerned at the length of time that it takes departments and agencies both to respond to the statement of complaint which is the precursor of an investigation and to agree to redress when investigation by my office has disclosed injustice resulting from maladministration".[20]

17. Once a decision has been taken to investigate a complaint the Ombudsman will issue a statement of complaint to the relevant body. Investigating Officers for the Ombudsman will talk to officials and obtain access to official papers. Upon completing their investigations, a draft report of their findings will be sent to the body for its views. If a complaint is upheld the Ombudsman can recommend that appropriate steps are taken to remedy the injustice, including administrative changes and financial remedy. The Ombudsman does not have the power to enforce the recommendations, but it is rare that they are not complied with.

18. It is at the stage when the Ombudsman agrees to take up a complaint that some problems begin. In a memorandum to the Committee, Sir Michael said "there have been occasions when the reply [from departments] has been no more than a holding reply and others when we have felt that the reply does not adequately address the issues we have raised. Bodies within my jurisdiction should have no excuse for prolonged delays in providing information relevant to my work".[21] He added a warning in his oral evidence: "there is pressure downwards on departmental running costs and the upshot is going to be more things going wrong, more maladministration". [22] When we put this issue of resources to the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, he agreed that "it is an issue of resources in part".[23]


1   "The Ombudsman, the Citizen and Parliament", R Gregory and P Giddings, Politico's Publishing, 2002, Foreword  Back

2   HC 84 1995-6 Back

3   HC 612 1999-2000 Back

4   Review of the Public Sector Ombudsmen in England: A Report by the Cabinet Office, April 2000, Annex A Back

5   HC 612 1999-2000 Back

6   Review of the Public Sector Ombudsmen in England: A Report by the Cabinet Office, April 2000 Back

7   HC Deb 20 Jul 2001 Col 464 W Back

8   Ibid Col 465 W Back

9   OM 1 HC 563-i 2001-02 Back

10   Q.2. Back

11   Q.3. Back

12   OM 1, para 7. Back

13   Q29 Back

14   HC 262-iv, Q435 Back

15   OM 1, para 6 Back

16   Q255 Back

17   Eighth Report Session 2001-02, HC 897  Back

18   Q96 Back

19   Public Finance 31 January 2003 Back

20   Eighth Report, 2001-02, HC 897 Back

21   OM 3, HC 563-ii Back

22   Q 90 Back

23   Q 252 Back


 
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Prepared 26 February 2003