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

6  Accountability of PHSO

83. Until 1997, PHSO reported to its own dedicated Select Committee, and since then to PASC. The relationship with PASC has afforded PHSO a measure of support when faced with resistance to PHSO's recommendations, for example in respect of the disputed findings in reports on Equitable Life, and the operation of the 2005 Single Payment Scheme by the Rural Payments Agency.

84. Buck, Kirkham and Thompson wrote enthusiastically about the role of PASC in Ombudsman Enterprise and administrative justice, noting that its work in support of PHSO has been "hugely influential".[91] They described the relationship as one of "sponsorship", "support" and "scrutiny", but noted that these responsibilities "may appear conflicting" and that:

    it may be that one of thereasons that Parliamentary select committees have not fully engaged with the work of thePHSO is a concern that they should not be seen to work proactively with a bodyParliament is responsible for calling to account.[92]

85. The approach to the relationship between the ombudsman and Parliament taken in Scotland is quite different. Jim Martin, Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, explained that:

    I have two bodies within the Parliament who scrutinise my activity, but I do not have a supporting committee. I do not have a committee that is there to support me; I am there to be scrutinised by Parliament [...] Where I want to be with Parliament is that I want Parliament to listen to what I have to say, but at the same time I want Parliament to show the public that I am managing the business of the Ombudsman appropriately. I do not need a supporting committee to do that.[93]

86. Buck, Kirkham and Thompson observed that a model adopted in New Zealand makes a clear distinction between the various functions of Parliament in respect of the ombudsman. The New Zealand Officers of Parliament Committee recommends persons for appointment as officers of Parliament to the House and champions the work of the Ombudsman; and the Government Administration Committee examines the Ombudsman's performance. Within the UK Parliament, this distinct separation can be found in the relationship between the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). PAC, which examines "the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted to Parliament to meet the public expenditure, and of such other accounts laid before Parliament", holds hearings based on NAO financial reports and value for money audits.[94]Formal scrutiny of the NAO is discharged by The Public Accounts Commission, rather than by PAC, though this does not preclude PAC also scrutinising NAO.

87. The Parliamentary Ombudsman was established in 1967, long before the creation of departmental Select Committees. PASC was, in 1997, given the remit in standing orders of scrutinising the reports of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), in addition to examining the quality and standards of administration within the Civil Service. The time has come to review this arrangement and to put measures in place to re-define the roles of scrutinising PHSO's service and of engaging with its reports and findings. To do so will increase transparency and will ensure there are clear lines of accountability.

88. We recommend that Parliament should strengthen the accountability of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO). The Public Accounts Commission, or a similar body should take primary responsibility for scrutiny of PHSO, including examining corporate plans, budget and resources. PASC should have its Standing Orders amended to require it to use the intelligence gathered by the PHSO to hold to account the administration of Government. PASC should also ensure that PHSO's reports are referred to the Departmental Select Committee to which they are most relevant. From now on, we will do so. Departmental Select Committees should use PHSO's reports to hold their respective departments to account.

91   Trevor Buck, Richard Kirkham, Brian Thompson, The Ombudsman enterprise and administrative justice(2010) Back

92   Trevor Buck, Richard Kirkham, Brian Thompson (PHS13) Back

93   Qq115 - 116 Back

94   Public Accounts Committee, Role of the Committee, accessed January 2014  Back

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Prepared 28 April 2014