Time for a People's Ombudsman Service - Public Administration Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. Mistakes, misunderstandings and maladministration are common in our public services. The British public have a right to complain. 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. However these complaints are often not resolved by the relevant service provider. If an individual remains dissatisfied with the way their complaint has been handled by a government department, agency, or by the NHS in England, that individual can ask for their complaint to be referred to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) or can themselves refer a complaint about the NHS. This Report seeks to examine the effectiveness of current arrangements in relation to the office of PHSO and the service it provides.

2. PASC scrutinises PHSO through annual appearances of the Ombudsman at Committee. These sessions focus on an examination of the strategy and performance of PHSO's service to complainants, as detailed in its annual reports. This Report follows a full examinationof PHSO's performance and effectiveness, and how its remit and function can best serve both the public and Parliament. Government and public services have changed since the Parliamentary Ombudsman was first established in 1967. We have reviewed PHSO's powers, its relationship with Parliament, and how its role and purpose should be developed.

3. We have drawn on the work and role other ombudsmen. PASC visited the Netherlands to learn about the National Ombudsman of the Netherlands, and the relationship between that office, the Dutch Government and the Dutch Parliament.A summary of our visit is provided in the Annex. We held an informal meeting with members of the public who had submitted information pertaining to their experience of complaining to PHSO, and hosted a forum discussion on the MoneySavingExpert website in order to help shape our evidence session with the current PHSO, Dame Julie Mellor.[1] We have received, as PASC does as a matter of course, a number of individual complaints about public services and other matters, including complaints about the office of PHSO. PASC does not have the capacity, nor is it within our remit, to adjudicate individual cases. We recognise that this can be very frustrating for individuals. Nevertheless we are grateful for the insight such cases have added to our understanding of how complaints can be handled or mishandled.

4. Our conclusions are aimed at creating a more effectivePeople's Ombudsman service that better serves the public and Parliament. We recommend a number of changes to bring this into effect. We have also reported on our parallel inquiry into complaints handling in government departments and agencies, inMore Complaints Please!. We wish to thank all those who contributed to this inquiry, with special thanks to Dr Nick O'Brien for his support as a Specialist Adviser on this piece of work.[2]

History of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

5. PHSO is made up of two component parts: The Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Health Service Ombudsman. The post of Parliamentary Ombudsman was established in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act (1967) as the public official who "may investigate any action taken by, or on behalf of, a government department or other authority".[3] The office of Health Service Ombudsman was created in the NHS Reorganisation Act 1973 following the omission of the NHS in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act. Both Acts have been subsequently modified on a number of occasions, for example in the Health Service Commissioner (Amendment) Act 1996, which broadened the scope of the investigations by enabling the Health Service Commissioner to investigate all aspects of NHS care and treatment, including clinical judgement.[4]

6. PHSOexamines complaints of 'maladministration', a term which at the introduction of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act was defined by the then Leader of the House of Commons, Richard Crossman,as "bias, neglect, inattention, delay, incompetence, inaptitude, perversity, turpitude, arbitrariness and so on".[5] Today PHSO states that:

    our role is to investigate complaints that individuals have been treated unfairly or have received poor service from government departments and other public organisations and the NHS in England.[6]
    Box 1: Summary of the development of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

    1954-Crichel Down affair leads to public outrage at behaviour of public officials and to calls for an Ombudsman.

    1961-Whyatt Report on behalf of JUSTICE recommends Parliamentary Ombudsman for UK.

    1967-Parliamentary Commissioner ('the Parliamentary Ombudsman') established, and Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration Select Committee also created with dedicated oversight of the Ombudsman.

    1973-Health Service Commissioner ('Health Service Ombudsman') established and post combined in person of the then Parliamentary Ombudsman.

    1996-Health jurisdiction of Ombudsman extended to cover complaints about clinical judgment of health professionals.

    1997-PASC assumes responsibility for scrutiny of PHSO's reports.

    2000-Colcutt Review of public sector ombudsmen recommends single public services Ombudsman (not implemented in England).

    2007-Parliamentary Ombudsman, Health Service Ombudsman and Local Government Ombudsman enabled to collaborate on investigations.

    2009-Publication of PHSO's "Principles of Good Administration", "Principles of Good Complaint Handling", and "Principles for Remedy".

    2011-Law Commission report on public services ombudsmen recommends a fundamental review of public services ombudsmen in England (not implemented).

1   MoneySavingExpert.com, Public Administration Select Committee: Have your say on the complaints process Back

2   Dr Nick O'Brien was appointed as a Specialist Adviser for this inquiry on 11 June 2013. The following interests were declared: an Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool University;employed as a fee-paid judge in the Mental Health Review Tribunal; held various paid advisory and employed part-time posts at the Office of the UK Parliamentary Ombudsman and Health Service Ombudsman between 2007-2012; contracted to prepare a policy position paper in April 2013 and facilitate a roundtable of academics for the Ombudsman in May 2013 in respect of the forthcoming inquiry;contributing to a project jointly for the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Legal Ombudsman on options for future shared approaches to redress; paid advisor to the Northern Ireland Ombudsman on a project relating to the investigation of complaints. Back

3   Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, Section 5 Back

4   Health Service Commissioner (Amendment) Act 1996, Section 6 Back

5   The Ombudsman - the developing role in the UK, Standard Note SN/PC/04832, House of Commons Library, November 2012 Back

6   Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, Welcome to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, accessed May 2013 Back

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Prepared 28 April 2014