Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  Q20 Annette Brooke: So if there is an appropriate time you will come back and debate that with us?

  Ms Abraham: If the court decides on my jurisdiction in relation to the Government Actuary's Department, that is that. It is a legal point.

  Q21 Chairman: Just on that last point, is there not a point, though, that rather like you wanting reform of the Ombudsman system so that you can follow complaints wherever they might lead, is not the same logic here that you really ought to have the ability to follow complaints across government wherever they might lead, and not be detained by arguments about whether something is in or outside jurisdiction or not?

  Ms Abraham: I agree in that I absolutely fundamentally believe that there should be proper coverage within the jurisdiction of an ombudsman of all of the activities of public service providers in government, and there should be clarity, the jurisdiction should be kept up to date, it should be comprehensive and it should be relevant. There has been a lot of work undertaken in recent months to update Schedule 2, and an Order in Council I believe is before Parliament at the moment. So I am very much of the view that jurisdiction should be comprehensive and appropriate but if the law says that this is not within my jurisdiction, and presumably if there was a particular reason for that which Parliament accepted in 1967, then it is not really not for me to act differently. But I would like to turn this upside down. I would like to say that rather than have a list of departments that are in, there should be a list of the departments that are out and the reasons for it, and that would perhaps prevent some of the difficulties that arise when new bodies are created and the specific action that needs to be taken to bring them within my jurisdiction is overlooked or happens somewhat belatedly.

  Chairman: When we get our fundamental reform to the system, we shall get that but we may come on to that a little bit later on.

  Q22 Sir Sydney Chapman: The question I would like to ask has been covered but I would like to come back to it very shortly. First, though, I think it would be worth putting on record that Ms Abraham sent us a legal opinion about a possible impending case where she is the defendant and that, therefore, the matter was sub judice. We have also received a legal opinion from the Equitable Members' Action Group to say that they thought we could ask any question and it was not sub judice and basically, through a motion passed in our House in 2001 following a report of the Joint Privileges Committee of both Houses of 1999, we have to make a decision based on that report, and I think that detail ought to be known. But I want to ask one other question: from listening to you, Ms Abraham, answering both Annette Brooke and the Chairman, you have the power to investigate any action by a government department. Do you not think you ought to have the right to investigate any action taken on behalf of a government department irrespective of, as has been mentioned, the Government Actuary's Department, as you have said specifically that the law says you cannot look into that? Do you not think it is inconsistent, almost unfair, on any constituent of ours, if you have this what I would have thought was unacceptably limited privilege to investigate?

  Ms Abraham: Can I say two things? I will come back to the point about action taken on behalf of a government department because it is very important but, if we are talking about matters for the record, certainly my legal advisers did write to the Clerk to the Committee but we did not for a moment suggest that we would be advising the Committee what was and was not sub judice, and what was and was not appropriate for them to be asking me. What my legal advisers did was write and set out for the information of the Committee the facts of the legal proceedings, so I very much take the view that it is for the Committee to decide what is appropriate for the Committee to do and I will take a view about what is appropriate for me to do—

  Q23 Chairman: Could I make it clear too, and I thought I had at the beginning, that you had given us legal advice on this. We did not accept that legal advice; we sought our own advice from the House authorities. It was out of that that we came to a position where we wanted to go as far as we could without causing prejudice to the prospect of legal proceedings, so to avoid any misunderstanding that is the context.

  Ms Abraham: I do not want to be pernickety about this but I do not believe that we did give you legal advice at all, or would have presumed to do so. We gave you information and what the letter said was "the information contained in this letter", so we told you the facts of the legal action but we certainly did not presume to—

  Q24 Chairman: No, I was not meaning legal advice in a formal sense. You wrote to us with a description of what you took the situation to be. We took that further and made sure that, from the House of Commons side, we could go as far as we could go and that is the context in which, indeed, we are having this exchange this morning.

  Ms Abraham: As you say. Coming back to the point about bodies acting on behalf of a government department, in principle I would accept that but in relation to the Government Actuary's Department, the Government Actuary's Department, as we understood the position, had no responsibility for the exercise of statutory powers on behalf of the FSA or the Treasury under the Insurance Companies Act, so that is not the situation that the Government Actuary's Department were in here.

  Q25 Sir Sydney Chapman: But at the very least, and I do not want to put words into your mouth, whatever powers you think you should have, surely you should have a certain discretion beyond the very strict powers that may be given to you, because the world is changing with different issues and it seems to me that you have been put, or you are claiming you have been put—and I accept your word for it, in a straitjacket, in a very limited straitjacket, almost as if you are forbidden from looking over the wall?

  Ms Abraham: I love enabling wide-ranging legislation and wish there was more of it, and I also very much take the view when looking at my statutory powers that, if the legislation does not say I cannot then I will see if I can, but I think in relation to the Government Actuary's Department there is so much very specific evidence to support our interpretation of the jurisdiction here, and I think the notes on clauses that accompanied the Bill, which made it very clear that the Government Actuary's Department was not to be within the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Commissioner, do seem to me to be very clear. At the end of the day, however, given where we are now, the question of whether a complaint has been duly made is a matter for me according to the statute. Obviously if I am challenged on that as I am being challenged now in this legal action it will be for the court to decide whether I have correctly taken a view on my jurisdiction here.

  Chairman: Do colleagues have any further questions on Equitable Life?

  Mr Liddell-Grainger: I do apologise for being late—I had to go to another meeting—but have we asked the Ombudsman to come back?

  Chairman: Yes.

  Mr Liddell-Grainger: And has she agreed to?

  Q26 Chairman: We have done rather more than asked, I think—we have announced an intention to have her back.

  Ms Abraham: I am happy to come back.

  Q27 Chairman: Perhaps I could just say listening to your last answer that in some ways it is rather unfortunate, that you have taken so much flak on this issue when all your instincts in the rest of your activity is to push against all the boundaries that you find yourself constrained by, and indeed wanting to remove some of them, so this is a rather particular case but because it is one that has such wide-ranging implications and such consequences for individuals, and indeed for the people we represent, you will understand why we want to come back to it.

  Ms Abraham: I fully understand. It is an important case and it is a case that obviously is of enormous concern to many people so I fully understand, and I am happy to give the assurance that, if invited, I will come back at the conclusion of the judicial review proceedings as you asked at the beginning.

  Q28 Brian White: A lot of people, when you do a report that says "We cannot take this any further generally", have a feeling of helplessness and they do not know where to turn to. What is your advice to Equitable members as to where they should turn, following your report?

  Ms Abraham: I would not presume to give Equitable members advice and I think in the circumstances it would not be appropriate for me to do so. There are clearly a number of groups who are active in the field and Equitable members will have to make their own decisions about that, but really it would not be appropriate for me to give Equitable members advice in the circumstances, particularly as I am the defendant in legal proceedings now.

  Chairman: That brings us back to where we started and I think that is probably as far as we can go for the moment on that. Could we turn to all the other areas of your work, because there have been some very important issues around during this first year and I know colleagues will want to explore some of them.

  Q29 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Can I explore the MP filter? It is something that I was keen to get rid of and I am not sure now it is such a good idea, because one of the things MPs have been able to do is see what is going forward to you. Now, the MP filter, I think most MPs will agree, can be fairly demanding—and I have had a particular case which you have been very helpful with where, in fact, I got it wrong and you got me out of a mess—but having said that the filter does give us a very clear idea of what you as the Ombudsman are up to. You have very kindly come in front of us but we are a privileged few MPs, and there are 600 of us in all. Are you still for the filter disappearing?

  Ms Abraham: The simple answer is yes.

  Q30 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Can we explore further as to why?

  Ms Abraham: Absolutely, but I would like to come back to the whole question of the relationship of my office with Parliament and how we continue to ensure that MPs know what my office is up to and what we are doing without the MP filter. Why I am for its removal is because I believe that in the 21st Century it really is not defensible for citizens not to have direct access to a public sector ombudsman and I believe, apart from the UK, the only other country where this is the case is France, so I think there is a point of principle here. However, having said that, I fundamentally believe that there is a huge amount of very valuable work that goes on by MPs, MPs' offices, MPs' surgeries in actually referring cases to us and there is nothing to stop that continuing, but I do not see why it should be an absolute requirement. I am strengthened in this by some research that we did jointly with the Local Government Ombudsman recently looking at public awareness of ombudsman services, looking at issues of access, looking particularly at disadvantaged communities and the sort of people who use the office and what came out of that is a very clear indication that we need to be much more externally focused as an organisation in ensuring that our services are accessible. Certainly if you look at the groups of people who are less inclined to use our services, the unemployed, the unskilled, people in black and ethnic minority communities, these are the people who said in that research that if it was a question of putting a complaint in writing, actually referring it through an MP, that might deter them from approaching the office. That is obviously something that we need to be addressing. The fundamental point is, I think, about accessibility and there are issues as well in joint working with colleagues in the Local Government Ombudsman scheme where the MP filter gets in the way of aligning a joint investigation and a joint report because of particular requirements that come out of that, so it is a point of principle, I think, in the 21st Century that a citizen should have direct access to the Ombudsman.

  Q31 Mr Liddell-Grainger: The thing that concerns me exactly on that, and you made a very valid point there, is that people do not feel that they are going to come to you if there is an MP in the way. Now, I come from rural Somerset—

  Ms Abraham: I know it well.

  Q32 Mr Liddell-Grainger: I guarantee that they are not going to come to you from rural Somerset. They might come to me to ask me to take it up with you because in Exmoor they do not particularly like London, with no disrespect to anybody here, and they do not like government because they see a lot of bureaucracy, that it is all based somewhere up here and it sort of happens. Unless there is a rugby tour going on, they do not come up here. Is that not the problem, that in fact your research may be flawed because the very people you want to get to are the least likely actually to come and take part in that research?

  Ms Abraham: Well, we went out, and I am not sure whether we went to rural Somerset, I will check, but I know rural Somerset well because I have family who live there, and there are a number of points in here. I think one of the most important is that the removal of the MP filter does not mean that MPs will never refer a case to my office again. I would expect MPs to be a major source of referrals to my office in the same way as we look to advice agencies, the places where people go if they have a problem. They go to advice agencies, they go to MPs and they do not automatically come to us, so we have got work to do in reaching out to advice agencies, to disadvantaged communities and we need the help of MPs with that. I am not saying that this is taking MPs out of the picture. What I am saying is that it is an inappropriate and unnecessary additional stage. Can I come back to this point about the relationship of my office with Parliament because it does seem to me that I was hearing very recently, in fact when walking up here this morning, that it was only in 1998 that the remit of this Committee was changed to having much wider terms of reference and that before that my predecessors used to come once a week and talk to this Committee. Now, it seems to me that it is important to think about in those changed circumstances how my office has an effective way of communicating clearly with this Committee, but also with Parliament generally about the work that we do other than on set piece occasions like today. I am very interested to discuss with the Committee ways in which we might actually provide more information, put more information in the public domain about our work and actually ensure that Parliament does understand what we are doing, what we are up to and can actually ensure that Parliament is very much aware of what the office, which has obviously been created to deal with the problems that citizens have in their disputes with government on administrative matters, that Parliament is very much aware of what we are doing, that we are accountable and that we are giving out a lot of information, so I am interested in exploring the relationship. One of the things it seems to me is that this Committee has the overview of these broad issues around ombudsmen, about ombudsman reform, about what is a proper ombudsman service in the 21st Century, but there are other committees who are very interested in some of the specific issues around health, around work and pensions that we do not have a relationship with at the moment and we do not provide a lot of information to and maybe we should, so I want to think about the relationship with MPs and with Parliament more generally.

  Q33 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Is that not the problem you have got? We live with these problems the whole time as MPs. It does not matter which part of the country or what you represent, it is the same problem. The same problem goes for Scottish MPs and all the rest of it, it is the same principle. When you come back once a week, I think we will get bored of each other fairly rapidly, but the point you make is a valid one. Surely the relationship with Parliament has to be one that steers you and your organisation, your body, in a direction that can actually help and surely we have a very good insight into what goes on. The CABs, district councils, county councils and all the rest of it can point you, but yet we tend to cross a much broader spectrum of organisations given what we do. Perhaps the answer would be that a minister has to come before the House on a yearly basis to give us a synopsis of exactly what the Ombudsman has been up to and you commit yourself to coming here to purge yourself of your crimes for the year maybe or whatever.

  Ms Abraham: Well, I certainly would not see it in terms of purging myself of crimes, but I do think that there is much more that my office can do to put into the public domain, the parliamentary domain and the government domain feedback about what we have been doing. One of the things that my Local Government Ombudsman colleagues are exploring is what they call an `annual letter to councils' in that as well as the individual cases on which they report, the Commission for Local Administration in England actually writes to each local authority to say, "In the year just closed, there have been this many cases. These were the issues, these were the themes and these are the things we think you ought to be addressing". Now, I could develop perhaps an annual letter to permanent secretaries along those lines which actually says, "These are the cases we have looked at which are of particular interest", if we start with the serial poor performers who give us a lot of work, and that out of that comes not just a very dense annual report with lots of detailed casework, but some fundamental issues about how public administration across government, across departments is failing and the lessons that need to be learned. Now, that is information that we could share more widely. I would just like to explore, I think, with the Committee what the Committee would find interesting, helpful and necessary in order to ensure that there is far more information available about the work of my office.

  Q34 Chairman: Just tell us who the serial poor performers are.

  Ms Abraham: Well, I think the Department of Work and Pensions probably gets the prize at the moment.

  Q35 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Tony is absolutely right because that is where the crunch comes, is it not? Your increase in the people you have had referring to you this year has been quite phenomenal. There is no reason to say that is going to get better and in fact you will probably get more as filters are removed, et cetera. Therefore, is it not up to ministers and secretaries of state now actually to be accountable for what you are doing, so you should be pushing it down and it is perhaps for us or other organisations to get people to stand up in Parliament to justify what on earth has been going on. As you say, Work and Pensions are serial offenders. We know that because of the letters we get. Do you think we need to be as tough as that or that you need to be as tough as that?

  Ms Abraham: I think we all need to be as tough as that. I think I have very much set out my stall, that my objective in life is to have a lot less work rather than a lot more and that would be because public services are improving and public service providers are better at handling complaints themselves rather than having situations where people have to go through this very extended process in order to get things sorted out. However, I think that we have got more work to do in actually analysing the trends and the themes and doing the feedback, you need to be aware of that, and what I need to do, when there are serial poor performers who are not getting better, is to come here and say, "These people need to be called to account".

  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Very interesting.

  Q36 Sir Sydney Chapman: Obviously the MP filter is part of the recommendations in the Collcutt Review of Public Sector Ombudsmen—

  Ms Abraham: That is right.

  Q37 Sir Sydney Chapman: —published three and a half years ago now.

  Ms Abraham: At least.

  Q38 Sir Sydney Chapman: And of course the single commission was the main proposal, I think I am right in saying, although I was not a member of the Committee at the time, but in 2001 we agreed, I think, with the single commission. I get the impression, I think, from the evidence you gave us last March that you have gone rather cold on that. Now, you are two parts of these three commissions, yourself, so if we give you the third part, would you accept a single commission? Very seriously, am I right in saying, and I believe you are quoted as saying, that you believe in the Collcutt principles, but you do not need to have the Collcutt institutions? I am rather disappointed to hear you say that.

  Ms Abraham: I think it is about pragmatism rather than principle. What I said last time and what I said in my memorandum last time was that I thought that things had moved on somewhat since Collcutt and because it is as old as you say it is, there have been developments. There have been developments in Scotland and there have been and there still are developments going on in Wales and there is a review going on in Northern Ireland. I think the complexity that I see institutionally is how the UK Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration actually comes together in an institution with the Health Service Commissioner for England, the Health Service Commissioner for Wales, the Commissioner for Local Administration in Wales, a Scottish Public Service Ombudsman, how you do that joining up, so it is not just a question of joining up the UK Parliamentary Commissioner and Health Service Ombudsman for England with the Local Government Ombudsman for England; it is more complicated than that. I think my view about this is that whereas I would love to start with a nice, big legislative slot and a blank piece of paper to create public sector ombudsman arrangements in the UK which were fit for purpose, comprehensive, joined up, all the things we want them to be, that is a complex wiring diagram now that developments in Wales and Scotland have gone the way they have gone for very good reasons which I support and I do not want us to stop trying to make progress with this while we work on an institutional solution. Therefore, I have not gone cold on the idea of the College of Ombudsmen, which came from Collcutt. I suppose I am trying to get there almost by the back door, if you like, by working with public sector ombudsmen colleagues on joint working, joint investigations and talking to government. I have provided information to the Committee about the discussions we have been having with ministers and officials in the Cabinet Office and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister about removing what I and my Local Government Ombudsman colleagues see as the absolute legislative constraints to joint working, whether that is by regulatory reform or whatever or not, so I am absolutely committed to the principle of joined-up ombudsmanship and if somebody walked in tomorrow and said, "Right, there is a legislative slot. Please would you work on a draft Bill with us", I would be in there like a shot, but I am trying to make progress towards the concepts in Collcutt of a single point of reference for complainants with or without the legislation because I do not detect that this is legislation that is top of the list.

  Q39 Sir Sydney Chapman: Just on this, first of all, Mr Liddell-Grainger said that his constituents hate London. My constituency is in London. I am tempted to say that a lot of my constituents hate London as well, and I hope I will not be misunderstood on that point. You have mentioned Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, but they have got devolved powers now, so I want to concentrate somewhat naturally on England, if not London. It seems to me that the very arguments you have used for saying that the MPs' filter system is anachronistic, and that is the word this Committee used, surely the one thing that would help simplify the work of the ombudsmen and encouraging people, where they feel a maladministration has taken place, is that you have one organisation so that you do not have to write to the Health Commissioner or the Parliamentary Commissioner or the Local Government Commissioner, but you actually write to one person at one address.

  Ms Abraham: I agree and if I thought there was a real prospect of that happening, then I would be, as I say, in there like a shot, working to do whatever was necessary to make it happen and I have not given up on it. It is important, I think, for me to make clear that I have not given up on that, but what I and my colleagues are trying to do is bring about exactly what you describe which is that you go to an office that says, "Ombudsmen", and even if you have turned up in the wrong place, the ombudsmen will make sure that your complaint is dealt with appropriately by whichever ombudsman it ought to be dealt with by and that we will sort that out. That is not saying that people cannot work these things out for themselves, but if somebody takes a complaint to my office in Millbank Tower and actually what they want is the Local Government Ombudsman, what we will do is we will walk downstairs and we will talk to the person and say, "Actually this is one of yours, Mary. Would you now take it on", and they will then contact the complainant, so we will not send people away and say, "You've rung the wrong number", but we will take it off them and make sure it gets dealt with appropriately and that is where I want to get to. I think in terms of what we want to achieve, we are at one and I would love to have the institution that would do that, though I am not optimistic about getting legislation in the next year or two, but I will still continue to argue for the Collcutt principles and maybe one day we will get the institution.

  Chairman: I think Kelvin wants to move on to the NHS.

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