The British public have a right to complain about public services when mistakes, misunderstandings and maladministration occur. They often do so not for their own benefit, but to ensure the service learns from its mistakes and the same defect is not inflicted on others. If an individual is not satisfied with the way a complaint has been handled by a government department, agency, or the NHS in England, the individual can refer their complaint to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO).
PHSO's operations are prescribed by its governing legislation, now 47 years old. Ombudsmen established since that time have had the option of adopting the model used for PHSO, but have taken a different approach. PHSO is, as the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman put it, in danger of being "stuck in time". Our conclusions are aimed at creating a more effective People's Ombudsman service that better serves the public and Parliament. We recommend:
· As a priority, the iniquitous restriction on citizens' direct and open access to PHSO, known as the "MP filter", must be abolished, as is already the case in respect of NHS complaints.
· PHSO must be able to receive complaints other than in writing: such as in person, by telephone or online, just as is expected of any normal complaints system.
· PHSO should have "own-initiative" powers to investigate areas of concern without having first to receive a complaint.
· Parliament should strengthen the accountability of PHSO. PASC, along with other Departmental Select Committees, should make greater use of the intelligence gathered by the PHSO to hold Government to account.
· In the longer term, there is scope to change the way that ombudsman services are delivered.
· A consultation on the creation of a single public services ombudsman for England.
· At the same time, there must be a distinctive ombudsman service for UK non-devolved matters.
In our Report, More Complaints Please!, we raised our concern that a "toxic cocktail" in respect of complaints handlinga combination of a reluctance on the part of citizens "to express their concerns or complaints" and a defensiveness on the part of services "to hear and address concerns"so often poisons efforts to deliver excellent public services. An effective ombudsman service can help to address this but change is urgently needed if PHSO, or any future public services ombudsman, is to ensure that it delivers a more effective service that is responsive and proactive. Complaints must make a difference and they must be welcomed and used to help to improve public services for everyone.