THURSDAY 6 MARCH 2003
Tony Wright, in the Chair
Examination of Witness
MS ANN ABRAHAM, Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Health Service Ombudsman, examined.
(Ms Abraham) Indeed; thank you very much. Thank you for your kind words, at least, kind to me if not to some of the categories of individual which I am not. I am very pleased to have an opportunity to talk to the Committee this morning and obviously to deal with any questions or any points the Committee wants to put to me. But I would like to say just a few words, by way of introduction. I am very aware that the Committee and its predecessor have had a very close relationship with my office for many years, and it is a relationship that I know all of my predecessors have valued and their staff have valued, and I look forward to that relationship being a continuing one and a strengthening one. I am also aware that the Committee has been in the forefront of holding the executive to account on matters of public administration and in keeping the reform of public services, and in that I include the ombudsman system, high on the agenda, and your report last week was further testimony to your commitment in that respect. I have submitted a memorandum today that sets out my initial thoughts on how this task of creating a modern, flexible, accessible, responsive ombudsman service can be taken forward. I have given a lot of thought to this in the four months that I have been in post, it is only four months but I have spent a lot of time thinking about this and talking to colleagues about it. I have had a range of discussions with Ombudsmen colleagues, with government departments, with other stakeholders, such as the Independent Complaints Examiners, like the Adjudicator, and the Child Support Agency Case Examiner, and I have come to the view that the time has now come to shift the focus of the reform agenda. Now that does not mean that the objective has changed, a coherent and a comprehensive system of complaint handling in the UK public sector remains very much the goal, but I do want to suggest that there might a somewhat different way to get there. And, in order to create this modern ombudsman system, which in itself contributes to the reform of our public services by feeding back lessons learned from casework to policy-makers and service providers, I think there are three things that need to be done. First, all public sector Ombudsmen across the UK need to be encouraged and enabled to work together, and to do so obviously in the best interests of complainants. But I think the onus must be on us, as Ombudsmen, to find ways to resolve cross-jurisdiction complaints and not on the individual citizen to find their way through a complex maze of different institutions, different jurisdictions. And I have found enormous goodwill and great enthusiasm amongst my Ombudsmen colleagues to do this, and my memorandum sets out some of the ways in which we are already working together and some further thoughts that we have about ways that we might develop that further. So the first point is about working together. The second is though I believe that there are some absolute constraints in the existing legislation, which prevent public sector Ombudsmen in the UK working together effectively, and I have detailed those in the memorandum. I think also we need to eliminate the uncertainty about the legal validity of some of the more flexible and speedier ways of resolving complaints informally. So I believe we do need some legislative change in certain areas, and we may need some clarification of the law in relation to our ability to use more informal methods of resolving complaints. The third point, I think, is that we need to promote effective complaint handling as an integral part of improving public service delivery. As the Committee has said in its report, "Without clear and credible pathways to complaints, public services will never be reformed." That so much resonates with my view. And, as I see it, complaint handling is part of the territory of good service delivery, it is not a separate activity that takes place somewhere else, and it is not an afterthought that you come to only when things go wrong. So the information that Ombudsmen gain through dealing with a wide range of complaints must inform strategic planning and service design across the public service. So those are the three things that I think we need to focus on. But I expect that the Committee will have noted that the approach set out in my memorandum does shift the emphasis away from wholesale legislative reform and the creation of a new Ombudsman, as envisaged by the Collcutt report. And I recognise that this is a shift, and that may be something of a surprise to some people, because the efforts to date have had a very institutional focus; but I think the backdrop itself has shifted since 1998, when my predecessor and Sir Edward Osmotherly actually put together their memorandum which led to the Collcutt review. Devolution has created new institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the arrangements for complaint handling there have been reformed, or they are the subject of reform proposals now. But as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration I have UK-wide responsibilities, and I continue to play a role in the consideration of complaints from people in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland about some major areas of government business, taxation, immigration and social security. So a merger of the English institutions, which is obviously what the Collcutt report talks about, would not deliver the 'one-stop shop' approach that is actually envisaged. And so, again, to borrow some more words from the Committee, "making it easier for people to complain without having the difficulty of working out precisely which complaints authority they need to deal with" means developing and strengthening my relationships with colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as much as it means working more closely with my Ombudsmen colleagues in the Commission for Local Administration in England. And the creation of multi-level government in the UK means that Ombudsmen too must work on multiple levels to provide an effective service to the public. And, I suppose, whether this is pragmatic or instinctive, really, I would rather put my energies into discussing with my fellow Ombudsmen in the UK the practical arrangements that we can put in place to make that a reality, rather than spend the next five, ten, however many years trying to construct a theoretical institutional model in the abstract. So I guess what I am arguing for here, I think, is a confederation rather than a commission. And, in other words, I believe that the focus now should be on Collcutt principles rather than on Collcutt institutions, because that is how we have the best chance to deliver the coherent and comprehensive public sector ombudsman arrangements in the UK that the Committee has been arguing for for so long. And I value particularly the role that Parliament, and the Committee in particular, plays in the work of my office, I do hope that will continue and that will develop. And I am very much interested in the views of the Committee, obviously, on what I have said, but on how we best take forward this reform agenda; and I am happy to answer any questions that you may have.
(Ms Abraham) I do not think I have ever been described as a loose cannon before, and I certainly do not think I am going to bring a loose cannon approach. I do think Ombudsmen have huge advantages, in that they are not constrained by an overlegalistic approach, an overformal approach, and they are not too bothered about precedent, they do have this ability to look in the round at all the circumstances and to take a fair and reasonable view. So what sort of approach do I bring to this. I think I bring an approach that is focused on levelling the playing-field. Ombudsmen have to be even-handed, they have to be impartial, but I think that, if there is a dispute between a member of the public and the state, that is rarely a balanced dispute, and I think that I take the view that, without ever turning into the champion of the individual, which is not my role, I am very strongly focused on ensuring that the individual is appropriately enabled to have a balanced dispute. My background, as some people will know, has a strong consumer thread to it, I have worked as a housing manager for a local authority, I have worked in the front line with homeless families, I have worked for the CAB service, but I have been an Ombudsman in another place for the last five years, dealing with complaints about lawyers, where disputes are rarely balanced. So I think I bring all of that experience. And, I guess, in the CAB world, lots of Citizens' Advice Bureaux I know had what they called an 'outrage book', and I think there are those cases where the test really is, you hear this story and are you outraged, and, I think, if ever I got to the point where I had lost my sense of outrage then probably I would need to stop being an Ombudsman.
(Ms Abraham) That is a very big question for the first session.
(Ms Abraham) It is my trade, and if you want I will quote the Crossman catalogue back at you, but I am not sure that would get us very far. There have been many attempts to define it, and all those lists of delay and bias and error, and so on, we are probably all very familiar with; but I think all of those lists end up by saying that "This is not an exhaustive list." We have two words to work with, in my trade, one is maladministration and the other is injustice, and I know that Ombudsmen, and my predecessors, have taken different views about what constitutes maladministration. I can work with the lists, but I think Ombudsmen over the years have developed an instinct, and maladministration is one of those things you know when you see it.
(Ms Abraham) I am not concerned with it in relation to needing to remedy that injustice, but I am concerned with it in terms of effective public service delivery, and certainly it is very much my view that, although the core business of Ombudsmen will always be the individual cases and remedying injustice in individual cases, Ombudsmen are doing only part of the job if they do not actually pull information out of that casework to improve public services. Now there may be things which are regularly going wrong, which did not lead directly to injustice in a specific case, but certainly there is valuable information there which might be used to feed back to public service deliveries about how they could do things better.
(Ms Abraham) It is one of the things I am interested in. You asked me initially what I supposed was my particular approach to this job, what were my particular characteristics. I think what I was trying to say was that I try to take, the phrase that has been used in the past is, a humane professionalism, that I do come to individual cases, individual stories, individual circumstances, with, I hope, a great deal of sensitivity to those people's circumstances. I always used to say, before my mother died, one of my tests was, if this happened to my mother would I be cross, and still I think it is not a bad test; but that is the start of the process, it is not the basis on which I make all my decisions. But I was trying to explain, I think, that I hope I have not lost the ability to be sensitive to the circumstances of the individuals who come to us. To come back to your key question, which is about, I think, what you were saying, if the state does it by the book but there is still injustice, can that be maladministration, I think probably it can.
(Ms Abraham) I have said, on numerous occasions, and no doubt I will say it again, that the objective of any Ombudsman should be to put themselves out of business, and if we are doing our job properly and we are contributing feedback to the reform of public services then I hope in years to come we will have very little to do. So, fundamentally, I believe that what we should be doing in my office is not sucking complaints towards us, to create some huge, centralised bureaucracy of complaint handling, we should be pushing them away to the point of resolution which is nearest to where things went wrong. And, therefore, I do believe that if public services were performing at the standard that they should be, or even if they were not but there were in place proper complaint handling arrangements in those organisations, as part of their own quality assurance, the Ombudsmen would have very little to do; unfortunately, that is not where we are, at the moment, but I have no problem with saying that that is where we would like to be.
Chairman: Thank you for that. That is a good way of getting into things. Now let us move on. Kevin.
(Ms Abraham) No.
(Ms Abraham) What is the source of what?
(Ms Abraham) I read it in The Guardian, that was the first I had heard of it. To respond seriously to the point, my predecessor certainly reported to the Committee that he had had some difficulty in obtaining co-operation from parts of Government in relation to cases that we were investigating under the Code on Access to Official Information; so that is the situation which I inherited. The situation is still not satisfactory in that respect, and because when things are not satisfactory my approach is to talk to people about it, I had a meeting, a few weeks ago now, with Permanent Secretaries in the Cabinet Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department to discuss how we might improve the situation. And we are in dialogue about how we could establish some sort of protocol, really, which would just confirm the way these cases should be handled, and certainly my idea was that that would be a protocol which would be distributed across Government. So what I am trying to do, in discussion with the Cabinet Office and with the Lord Chancellor's Department, who have the policy responsibility for this area, is agree a protocol.
(Ms Abraham) If there is, I do not know about it.
(Ms Abraham) I think there are two things. One, the length of time that it takes to get responses from departments, either in relation to statements of complaint or draft reports, so delay is one aspect. And the other, again which my predecessor experienced as well, is that on some occasions we have not been given, initially, at least, the access to the information which is sought. So we have had difficulty getting the information that the complainant is seeking so that we can take a view about whether releasing it or not is appropriate, and that has not been straightforward, and the timescales have not been. So those are the issues.
(Ms Abraham) No.
(Ms Abraham) No.
(Ms Abraham) It would be; outrageous.
(Ms Abraham) I would.
(Ms Abraham) No, it has not been suggested to me. No, I do not think it is a good enough reason.
(Ms Abraham) I will not do the latter. But, in general terms, the procedure that is followed in these cases, and I think I would stress the point that, the Code on Access to Government Information, these cases form 1 per cent of my work, so I think we have to put this in perspective, but the processes are the same as they would be in relation to any other investigation, in that when we have the information that we need to produce a draft report we would send, as we are required to do, that draft report to the department concerned. And that would be the subject of dialogue, or it may be the subject of dialogue, if there were no issues then it would not be, between officials. And that is how it works. I think the Committee well knows that that sort of dialogue, at that stage, is very typical and entirely proper.
(Ms Abraham) In all seriousness and all honesty, no.
(Ms Abraham) It is an interesting question, and it is the question I asked, I think, on day three in the job, in terms of what was my position in relation to complaints under the Code, because, of course, it is a Code, and, as I understand the position, the powers that I have are analogous to my statutory powers in relation to the Parliamentary Commissioner Act, and the understanding was, when Parliament agreed that I should take on this work, in 1994, that that is the basis on which it will be done, and Sir William Reid's memorandum, I think, to the predecessor of this Committee, set that out. The lawyers, I am sure, could have fun with this, if ever they wanted to, but I cannot see there will be any point in doing so. It seems to me that there was a full acceptance, at the time that my office took on this work, that I would do this work in the same way as I carried out statutory investigations under the legislation, and therefore I assume that that is the basis that government departments are working on.
(Ms Abraham) I am not in the business of negotiating anything. If I am in the business of anything, at this stage, I think it is the process of education, and that, despite the fact that this Code has been in operation for this length of time, there does not appear to be, everywhere, a full understanding of the basis on which my office is undertaking the work. So I suppose I am looking for a reaffirmation of that, and a clarity that that is the basis on which we are doing it.
(Ms Abraham) Various officials, in various departments, at various times.
(Ms Abraham) Not precisely, no, but I do not envisage it taking a great deal longer.
(Ms Abraham) I think probably I have to say yes to that.
(Ms Abraham) I cannot talk about that report.
(Ms Abraham) There is a draft report, yes.
(Ms Abraham) You will have to ask The Guardian that.
(Ms Abraham) It did not get it from my office.
(Ms Abraham) I cannot talk about that particular investigation and that particular report.
(Ms Abraham) I will give you more than an assurance, I will give you a promise.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.
(Ms Abraham) I did explain in the letter to Members, that I wrote on 5 December, that the taking up of a case as a representative case was the approach that my office always used in situations where there was a large number of complainants, and that it was the approach that the office had used in the Barlow Clowes case, it was the approach that the office has used in the SERPS case. So that is entirely the way that we would approach this sort of situation.
(Ms Abraham) I think it is the right way.
(Ms Abraham) I think I beg to differ, and perhaps I could use as an illustration the report on long-term care that I published a couple of weeks ago, because I think that is very much a way in which, hopefully, we can help to obtain remedies for a large number of people without necessarily having to look at every single one of those cases. What we did there was, in slightly different circumstances, in that it emerged from our casework that this was an issue which was likely to have a much wider application, we produced a report to Parliament to raise awareness of the issue, as a result of which we have had over 1,000 telephone calls in the last fortnight. And we have been able to put those people in touch with the strategic health authorities who have the responsibility here, and those strategic health authorities are all very much aware of the issues, and the Department of Health is as well. So really it is about using the resources of our office in the most effective way. And what we are not saying to all of the complainants whose cases we are not investigating is that when we have done this one we will turn to the next one in the queue; what we anticipate, in the same way as has been the case in the past, is that the findings in relation to the representative case will actually be able to be used in relation to the other people concerned.
(Ms Abraham) In June.
(Ms Abraham) In June.
(Ms Abraham) Yes, this year.
(Ms Abraham) Of course I do.
(Ms Abraham) I am not sure what I can say to that. I cannot make it a perfect world. What I have done is explain the basis on which we are investigating a representative case.
(Ms Abraham) In fact, my predecessor took that decision, and I looked at that very closely when I came in, in November, and it was something that I did think long and hard about, because, clearly, it was something that many people had raised. I took the view at that point that the investigation was well under way and that if I were to change the scope of it, extend the scope of it, in effect, what I would have been saying to my staff was that they needed pretty much to start again, and the only real consequence that I could see from a decision to extend the scope was very, very significant delay, of many, many months, possibly more. Therefore, because, I think, at that time I was looking at what was being said to me, there was a large body of concern about how long they were taking, there were issues around scope, and I had to make a judgment about that, I took the view that to do anything other than continue with what my predecessor had decided could only delay us very considerably, and therefore I decided to stay with his decision.
(Ms Abraham) Clearly, I have made the judgment that I have, and certainly I intend to report in June, and we are on target to do that, unless something happens that I am not yet aware of. You say an interim report, I intend to report on this investigation in June. What my predecessor said is that he would conduct the investigation that we are conducting, and that he would await the report of Lord Penrose's inquiry before deciding whether it would be appropriate, and indeed useful, to intervene further. I take a similar view. So I have reached no final conclusion on any of these matters, and, clearly, there is my representative investigation to conclude, there is Lord Penrose's inquiry, and at that stage I have to take a view about what my office usefully can do.
(Ms Abraham) I have not ruled out doing that.
(Ms Abraham) I think it is crystal-ball gazing and it is speculation. I do not know what he is going to say either. But I have made very clear, I think, and my predecessor has, to Members and to the Committee, the extent of my jurisdiction, and, clearly, my jurisdiction will be what drives this.
(Ms Abraham) Of course, I cannot be unaware of the implications of anything I might conclude, but that does not mean I do not conclude it.
Chairman: We have got to think about that.
(Ms Abraham) Absolutely. Sorry, I am not intending to be cryptic. I think what I wanted to say was that I would never expect to, I would never expect any Ombudsman to compromise their findings because it was going to open up a can of worms.
(Ms Abraham) I am not sure I would see that in the same way, and I think what is happening in Lord Penrose's inquiry is a matter for Lord Penrose. Certainly I have not seen anything which suggests to me that I should change my decision about the scope of our inquiry, and I cannot give you the assurance that you are asking for. At the moment, that is the scope of our investigation, that is the basis on which we are heading to report in June, and that is how I am proceeding.
(Ms Abraham) Not so.
(Ms Abraham) Well, not because of the Penrose inquiry. What I have said is that we are on target to report in June, and unless something happens that I do not know about yet then we are on course to report.
(Ms Abraham) At the moment, there are not any hold-ups. There has been a huge amount of documentation to go through, there have been many, many interviews with witnesses, it is a very big investigation. But it is about the scale of it and the amount of paperwork, it is not about hold-ups in the sense that you describe.
(Ms Abraham) There is a clear plan with target times set out for the investigation.
(Ms Abraham) It is.
(Ms Abraham) It is my brief in one sense. The constraints that I have are about jurisdiction, and that has been set out very much in previous memoranda to the Committee and it is set out again in my letter. So, of course, there are no questions about my independence. I could not possibly seek to speak for Lord Penrose, but I think his independence is something that certainly he would want to stress as well. There are limits to my jurisdiction, they have been clear from the start.
(Ms Abraham) My powers and my statutory existence are about maladministration, but the bodies over which I have jurisdiction do not include all the bodies that Lord Penrose is looking at, or that might be an issue here.
(Ms Abraham) In terms of the specific investigation that we are conducting now, the Treasury and anyone acting on their behalf, obviously the DTI if we were to go back.
Sir Sydney Chapman
(Ms Abraham) I am just trying to think. It may well be that length of time.
(Ms Abraham) I am tempted to say, in response to that, so that any future cases would take a lot less time. We have conducted a very extensive investigation about the prudential regulation of Equitable Life in that period, so we are looking at the generality of prudential regulation and how it impacts on that case, but it is a representative case that means that we have to look at all the circumstances. So I suppose it is difficult. I have been around only since November and I have not been involved in all of the detail going back, but I have seen, obviously, the extent of the files, the paperwork, the investigations, the interviews that have been involved in that, and that has taken a considerable amount of time, we have had to take professional advice, and so on. I suppose when the report appears it may be clearer why the investigation has taken that length of time. I am sure that is very little consolation for the people who have waited that length of time. But what I can say is when I arrived in November the first thing I did, in the very early weeks, was to conduct a full review, to write to members to tell them the results of that review, to establish a very clear timetable for the completion of the investigation and production of the report, and I have reviewed with the investigation team that timetable as we have gone forward, I did so most recently at the end of last week. So I have ensured that the investigation has progressed as quickly as I think it can realistically, and it is progressing against the timetable that I established with my staff shortly after my arrival, and we have not departed from that.
(Ms Abraham) I do not.
(Ms Abraham) I do not expect to get a copy before it is published, no. The Committee may be interested to know that I did have a very brief meeting with Lord Penrose recently, at my request, because I wanted to be clear that I did understand the remit of his inquiry, but, clearly, we could not discuss the content of our respective investigations and the inquiry. So I do not anticipate that I am going to get any special treatment in relation to Lord Penrose's inquiry. I would not ask for it.
(Ms Abraham) I really do not know the answer to that question, I do not know.
(Ms Abraham) No. The legislation is about a complaint being referred to my office by an MP in relation to an individual, so I am not responding in that sort of way.
(Ms Abraham) Yes, that is what I am saying.
(Ms Abraham) I did say that.
(Ms Abraham) It is right that I have the power to recommend redress. There does seem to be, in some quarters anyway, a view that I can order redress, and the Committee will be well aware that that is not so. But, yes, clearly, if I find maladministration and injustice then redress is where I go next.
(Ms Abraham) Well, in simple terms, no. What I am not saying is "If you don't get your application in then you couldn't benefit from any redress." It is a bit like, going back to the long-term care situation, there are many people now who are in dialogue with strategic health authorities about funding for long-term care who have had either no or a very brief dialogue with my office. What we said in that report was that the law should be fairly and consistently applied, and that people should be put back in the situation they would have been in if that had been the case; the same general approach would apply.
(Ms Abraham) Well, if we were to make those sorts of findings then certainly I would anticipate that. Again, it is the representative case point, is it not, I think?
Chairman: Yes. That has been really very, very helpful; thank you very much indeed.
(Ms Abraham) I wish I knew the answer to that, and I hope the Committee might be able to help me with it. I think, when we had that conversation, the proposal on the table was focused very much on the MP filter, and in some ways I think the MP filter is the least of our problems. Because I think that it is not so much that the MP filter is a barrier, I think it is just a bit of a smokescreen really for these clear and credible pathways to complaints. If I am explaining to a complainant that if they want to approach me as Health Service Ombudsman then they do not need to come via an MP, but if they want to come to me as Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration they do, but if they want to come to me as Welsh Administration Ombudsman they do not, and if they are in Scotland, of course, they do not, and in Northern Ireland some of the time they do. So, in terms of clear and credible pathways to complaints, this does not feel to me that that is very helpful. But in many ways I am nervous about the removal of the MP filter because I am very conscious of the valuable work that goes on in MPs' offices, and I do not think for a moment that if it were to be removed my office would suddenly stop having a close working relationship with MPs, with their offices, and that we would not need to have an effective dialogue with them and an effective working relationship. I think, fundamentally, that removal of the MP filter would improve the service for all of our customers, and in that I include MPs, I think we would stop this double handling and the delays that result. So, MP filter, yes, I think we should remove it. But, actually, for me, what is much more of a hindrance to this accessible, flexible, responsive modern service is the constraints on joint working with other Ombudsmen, and therefore I think, in some ways, if we had taken that opportunity when it arose we could have found ourselves actually dealing with the minor problem, which is the MP filter, and leaving ourselves looking for legislative time to tackle what I think is the big issue, which is the constraints on joint working.
(Ms Abraham) I think that would be hugely helpful. I had a meeting, as I think Douglas Alexander mentioned, this week, in Questions, with him, I have talked to Cabinet Office officials, about really trying to get now to the point where we have a very clear view about what we want to do, how we want to do it, to get the consensus that we need for that, and, clearly, it seems to me that the Committee should have a role to play in that. So that could only be helpful.
(Ms Abraham) I think, receptive. I am just trying to think of the words that Douglas Alexander used, I think he talked about the basis for a constructive relationship. It was an extremely amicable meeting. I think what he could not hold out for me was a clear timetable, in terms of legislative time.
(Ms Abraham) I can see that it could only be helpful.
(Ms Abraham) Yes; so it is about finding ways actually to move that forward.
(Ms Abraham) I am not supposed to do product placement, but I am a Volkswagen person now. I do think that there has been a recognition, certainly my predecessor has said this, that we need to have a more diverse product range, and that the serious, heavyweight, statutory investigation should not be the core product; and, in fact, I think it is not the core product. Actually, in some ways, I think we do ourselves a disservice in the way we report on our work, because the huge amount of work that is going on, in informal resolution, does not necessarily come through in our annual reports in the way perhaps it should; so some of it is about actually how we tell the story. I think we have work to do on what I would call the customer services front-line interface, that that is not an area that traditionally, as an office, we have put a huge amount of resource into, and changes have been made over the years in that respect, but I think there is more to do. So I think improving our customer services front line, working with other Ombudsmen as well, the idea of joint advice lines and help lines, and so on, just so that people can come to one place, with one telephone number and find out about lots of different numbers within the services. But I am always interested in what I call the quality/quantity conundrum, which all Ombudsmen offices face, and if things take a long time then that in itself impacts on the quality of our work. And I will want us to do investigations, informal resolutions, as quickly as we can do them, and it may be that there is still scope for improving that, in fact, I am sure there is, without detracting from the need to do some very serious and lengthy reports, where the circumstances actually require them. And, I think, on the health side, some of the investigations that we do, very often they are about "A loved one died and I don't understand what happened here." We are providing information and explanations, and it takes a long time to do that, and it is necessary and appropriate to do that, in a Rolls-Royce way, if you like.
(Ms Abraham) Not yet, but I am thinking about it.
(Ms Abraham) I will, indeed.
(Ms Abraham) I do wonder sometimes. I do think Ombudsmen's offices have a particular perspective on these things, and that helicopter view that you get; and I always used to say, in my previous job, when I was dealing with complaints about lawyers, that I was the only person who could actually see what the entire legal team was doing. So, in this context, I do think it is of considerable interest that different bits of Government, different bits of the state, have different approaches to complaint handling, to redress, to the whole process of local resolution. And certainly I see it as part of my role to encourage Government and the Health Service to have common principles, common mechanisms, common approaches to redress, even if that means that their application might result in different responses in different situations, and obviously health is an area where a tangible expression of regret for poor service is not the appropriate response to the unexpected death of a loved one. But it comes, I think, to my view that my office ought to be more than a complaint handler, it ought to be a source of expertise on complaint handling, it ought to be a centre of excellence in public administration itself, and people ought to be able to look to us for advice on how to do these things well.
(Ms Abraham) Individually and personally, no. I take a view on whether any department has acted maladministratively, I take a view on whether a service has been provided to the appropriate standard and I take a view about injustice. It is not part of my job to comment on the performance of individuals, generally.
(Ms Abraham) I think it is very difficult. I do wonder sometimes about some of the language we use, that, actually, if we have looked at something and we can see that we are unable to help, either because it is outside jurisdiction, or clearly there is no maladministration, there is no fault on the part of a department, the language that we use to say that, when we talk about discontinuing, we talk about dismissing, I am sure none of that helps, and I think we can review seriously how we communicate the messages that we do communicate. Certainly, my experience as an Ombudsman over many years, the number of times that people have either said or written to me, or my staff, and said, "This is the first time that anybody's ever listened, this is the first time that anybody's ever actually understood what I was trying to say and taken the time." And I think that, whatever the outcome, whenever I do customer feedback surveys, and I like to do them regularly, from a baseline that we are moving on from, it may be that we cannot take a different view of the circumstances of this complaint, but I hope that we will always get good feedback from customers about our courtesy, our respect, that we listened to them, that we gave them the time. I think that those are some of the things that all Ombudsmen's offices should be doing.
(Ms Abraham) I think I can detect a strong arm in a velvet glove. No such thing, absolutely no such thing. I can see why you might say that, but absolutely I do not see my memorandum as letting the Government off the hook. There is a commitment to legislative reform when parliamentary time allows, and I am saying in the memorandum, and I said very clearly in my meeting with Douglas Alexander, that there are absolute constraints in this legislation, and if we do not have legislative reform then we will not get the modern ombudsman arrangements that we need, that the Committee has been arguing for for so long and that the public deserve, and I am absolutely clear about that. What I do feel is that, the sort of wiring diagram that will be necessary to join up in an institution all the UK public sector Ombudsmen and all of their jurisdictions, I would rather just get on and get stuck in and do it, and if that means pushing the boundaries of the legislation that we have got that is fine with me. But I do think that the scope for joint working, although considerable, is absolutely constrained by the legislation that relates to my various offices, to the Local Government Ombudsman, and indeed my colleagues in Scotland and Northern Ireland. So I am not remotely letting the Government off the hook, I am very clear that we cannot achieve this without some legislative reform. But what I am interested in is doing that in the most straightforward way, in a way which does not seek to create a hugely complicated institution, which I suspect would cost quite a lot in terms of public money, and I am not sure that I can see that it would add any great value from the complainant's perspective.
(Ms Abraham) I would be very happy to do that.
(Ms Abraham) Indeed; well what I can do is assure the Committee that my memorandum has nothing to do with strong-arm tactics, either inside or outside of Number 10.
(Ms Abraham) I am very happy to do that. But I can understand why you might be surprised and concerned by it, and I am very happy to pursue a more detailed dialogue on all of that. I too would welcome greater accountability, and it is one of the areas that I think is worthy of further discussion. So I do not have any difficulty at all with that.
(Ms Abraham) Absolutely, yes, and certainly that is how I see it; absolutely.
Chairman: Thank you very much.
(Ms Abraham) It does seem to have been a muddle for a long time.
(Ms Abraham) I think that may well be so. I think the words that I used in the report were that it seemed to me that these cases could be illustrative of a much wider problem.
(Ms Abraham) I really do not know. What I can say is, in the fortnight since the report came out we have had over 1,000 calls, actually we have had 186 actual written complaints. What we have done, in relation to the complaints coming in, is an initial referral to the relevant strategic health authority, but also we have set up a system that has a proviso, that if the complaint has not been resolved within three months the complainant can come back to us; so the strategic health authorities should be looking at those in the first instance. But it would not surprise me if there were many hundreds that came back to us.
(Ms Abraham) I have not got the details with me.
(Ms Abraham) No, the figures are not in the report; so I have not got that detail with me. And in some of the cases we were talking about relatively small sums of money, because, unfortunately, the individuals actually had died, but in other cases it was very different. So I do not think I can easily put a figure on, say, typically the losses.
(Ms Abraham) I think the fact that the report makes recommendations towards both the health authorities and the Department of Health makes it clear that, in my view, the responsibility is shared and that there is follow-up action which is needed by both the health authorities, and the individual health authorities, and the Department of Health.
(Ms Abraham) I have no information about that.
(Ms Abraham) What I have said is that the four cases that we published and a cluster of complaints that we are still investigating suggest to me that this is illustrative of a wider problem, they were from very different parts of the country. So I do not know, is the answer to that, but the fact that the complaints that we had seen suggested an illustration of a wider problem was why we put this into the public domain, reported to Parliament, in order to raise public awareness; and certainly the fact that we have had over 1,000 enquiries suggests that there is a wider problem out there.
(Ms Abraham) I cannot say yes to that, I really do not have the evidence.
(Ms Abraham) No, I do not want to get involved in the policy areas, that is not my job. I feel very much that an Ombudsman is not doing a complete job if they do not ensure that the evidence which emerges from casework is not fed back to service providers and public service generally; that does not mean that I am going to be looking for areas of concern that do not emerge from the casework, so I think that is different. I am very much of the view that what drives our work are the complainants who come to us, the problems that they bring to us, and therefore that will always be the foundation for anything we do in terms of improving public services. The more general point is about us being the source of expertise in complaint handling; so, if we know about anything, we know how good complaint handling systems should work, we know the common principles of accessibility, simplicity, fairness, and so on. So what I am saying is that there are two levels really to our feedback. One is about ensuring that issues, trends, that emerge from casework should be fed back; the other is that we know about complaint handling and we can advise departments, the NHS, how they might do it better.
(Ms Abraham) No, not yet.
(Ms Abraham) If I have not had one within a matter of a few more weeks then I will write again.
(Ms Abraham) I always answer letters that are sent to me.
(Ms Abraham) We are talking about both.
(Ms Abraham) Thank you. And I welcome very much the statement that this is the start of the dialogue.
Chairman: Thank you very much.