Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-363)


22 MARCH 2007

  Q360  Mr Prentice: I am going to scream if I hear "Tesco" again! The Civil Service is changing and if Gus O'Donnell was here, he would say that he goes to the "front line" and speaks to people. We had the top man from the Department for Work and Pensions here before us last week and he does the same thing. The guy who runs the Disability Carers Service, he gets complaints in to his desk and he told us that organisations should not shield the people at the top from complaints and that, when they see the complaints, it turns the organisation into a learning organisation. Given that that is happening, it depresses me to read in your memorandum that the volume of complaints, you say, although it is going down in some areas, is showing increases and the overall volume of people seeking redress is unlikely to have fallen. Now, that is dispiriting, given everything we have heard.

  Professor Dunleavy: Yes. We did a quick check on the top ten sources of complaints in our 2003/04 survey and got a figure of about 413,000 complaints from them. We updated that for 2005/06 and there are some missing data, but it was about 410,000, so it has not really shifted. But within that there have been big, big reductions in NHS complaints, big increases in HMRC, big reductions in the Pension Service and so on—so there is quite a lot of volatility in that picture.

  Q361  Mr Prentice: I wanted to go into the whole area of consultation and participation, but we are right up to the wire and I do not think I will be able to fit it in, but let me just touch on the Financial Ombudsman Service which you held up as being a pretty good example, not perfect, but a pretty good example. To what extent should the Ombudsman be proactive because there are a lot of angry people out there, angry with the banks, they have been ripped off by the banks, so what has the Financial Ombudsman Service done about that proactively to address some of the issues that people complain about?

  Professor Dunleavy: When people feel that they have had a bad decision, they very often get quite irate and, to some extent, you may not want to handle people in that immediate aftermath and you may want people to calm down and get a bit of a perspective. What then is very important is that you need to focus on what it is that people are complaining about. A lot of people will ring up the Financial Ombudsman Service, saying, "I invested in shares and my shares have gone down, and I want to complain about that". Now, you are not allowed under their rules to complain about that, so you just have to get to grips with that. There is an awful lot of piling up of complaints and appeals in the public sector where that sort of explanation, mediation, getting people on to the same page and then getting them to focus on whether there really is a cause of complaint and what it is, to establish that very clearly and to get the organisation's side of the picture and then put the two together in an intelligent way, that is almost never happening in the public sector, especially not in appeal systems. As soon as it goes off into an appeal system, it is another organisation and you leave it to wend its way through the system. Actually, if you had a more active intervention fairly early on, you might be able to explain better to people what it is that they have rights about and what they do not have rights about and you might stop this sort of silting up of the whole system with possibly not-very-needed complaints and also a lot of accumulation of evidence and argument that does not really focus on the issues.

  Mr Cullum: The other interesting thing in the financial system is the interplay between the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Financial Services Authority and particularly the FSA's Treating Customers Fairly initiative, which is a move towards a more principle-based regulation where its fundamental thing is basically saying to the people running companies, "You are being paid vast amounts of money to sort this stuff out and we are not going to tell you for every single thing precisely what to do, but we expect you to put it right."

  Q362  Mr Prentice: That is for financial services?

  Mr Cullum: Yes, but the interesting thing is the interplay with the Financial Ombudsman which then feeds in to how it operates, so, with the two together, the thrust is saying, "Don't just put it right in this particular instance, but how are you going to change it for the future so that things are put right for everybody, not just this one case?"

  Q363  Mr Prentice: The FSA, is it funded by the industry?

  Mr Cullum: I think it is, through licence fees.

  Chairman: We have much more to ask you. Gordon wants to ask about consultation and participation and I was going to ask you what you thought "co-production" meant, and I wanted to ask you about Shared Solutions, this thing you are doing with Unison, but we have not got time because I promised people who have got other commitments that they could get away, so I really am sorry about that. We have had, I think, an interesting discussion and we may have to get you back for the rest of it, but, for this morning, thank you very much indeed.

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