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


Conclusions and recommendations


"More investigations for more people"

1.  PASC received a significant amount of correspondence from individuals who were dissatisfied that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman had declined to investigate their complaint. We welcome the decision taken by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to investigate more complaints as a way to remedy such concerns. (Paragraph 22)

2.  The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman must be explicit in how the decision to investigate more cases is being achieved, to demonstrate that it represents a significant change in the quality of investigations and upheld complaints and that it is a much more substantial shift than a re-classification of current workloads.(Paragraph 23)

The investigation process

3.  We were told that complainants receive a detailed account of the reasons underpinning decisions taken by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) in respect of their complaint. Nevertheless some complainants told us they do not feel all the evidence available in their complaint was taken into account, and evidence was not treated equally. We recognise that not all complainants may feel this way, but PHSO should review the transparency of its ownarrangements for reviewing its decisions. (Paragraph 31)

4.  When explaining to complainants the findings of an investigation and how decisions have been reached, the Parliamentary and Health Ombudsman (PHSO) sets out the evidence that has been relied on or which has influenced investigators in reaching their conclusions. In addition, PHSO should make clear what evidence it received and considered as part of that investigation, and if necessary, what evidence was not used to form the conclusion, and why.(Paragraph 32)

PHSO: "stuck in time"?

5.  The restrictive legislation governing the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) means it is unable to meet the standard set by Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. An ineffective instrument of democratic accountability cannot remedy failures in public service delivery. PHSO is impeded by out-of-date legislation so it fails to meet the expectations of today's citizens. It is, as Scotland's Public Service Ombudsman put it, in danger of being "stuck in time". The UK needs new legislation. The Ombudsman should be seen as a People's Ombudsman service as well as Parliament's Ombudsman. We address how this is to be achieved later in the report. (Paragraph 45)

6.  In our report, More Complaints Please!, we recommend that there should be a minister for government policy on complaints handling. In addition, we recommend that the minister also take responsibility for policy in relation to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and that he or she should bring forward the new legislation required to enable citizens to have a simpler and more straightforward Ombudsman service that is responsive to citizens and their expectations. (Paragraph 46)

The restriction of direct access

7.  Along with all other informed opinion, we can find no justification for restricting citizens' direct access to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman for non-NHS complaints. It was intended that the "MP filter" should be abolished after the first five years of the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Citizens were given direct access for NHS related complaints for good reason. The continuing prohibition of direct access for all complaints is the denial of equal access to administrative justice and is an anachronism which is at odds with the expectations of today's citizens. This defies all logic. It disempowers citizens, obstructs access to their rights, and deters people from making complaints. (Paragraph 55)

8.  We recommend that the Government's new legislation to create a simpler and more straightforward Ombudsman service includes provision to abolish the iniquitous prohibition on citizens' direct and open access to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), known as the "MP filter". This would allow citizens to make a complaint unimpeded to PHSO in respect of all complaints about government departments and public bodies, as is already the case in respect of NHS complaints.(Paragraph 56)

The case for allowing telephone, oral and online complaints

9.  The manner in which a complaint is handled is a key part of the provision of redress, even if the complaint itself is not actually upheld. Allowing complaints to be submitted in person, by telephone, or online would empower more people to make complaints to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO). The requirement that all complaints to PHSO must be in writing presents a barrier to access and is out of step with other ombudsman services. For many people, form filling is an anathema to an understanding and supportive approach. It constitutes an unjustified barrier to those who lack literacy skills, and is out of date in a world where so much customer service is now delivered online, in person, or via the telephone. (Paragraph 59)

10.  We recommend that the Government's new legislation to create a simpler and more straightforward Ombudsman serviceshould allow complaints to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to be made other than in writing, such as in person, by telephone or online, just as is expected of other complaints systems.(Paragraph 60)

The case for 'own-initiative' powers

11.  We support the principle that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman should have "own-initiative" powers, similar to other ombudsmen, which allow it to investigate areas of concern without having first received a complaint. The benefit of this would be, for example, the ability to respond better to early warning signals and to gain greater insight into service problems. (Paragraph 71)

12.  We recommend that the Government's new legislation to create a simpler and more straightforward Ombudsman serviceshould grant the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman the power of own-initiative investigations.(Paragraph 72)

Oversight of complaints handling

13.  As we concluded in our Report on complaints handling in Government departments and agencies, More Complaints Please!, we remain concerned that the "toxic cocktail" in respect of complaints handling—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"—poisons efforts to deliver excellent public services. There is a clear benefit to the public and to good administration that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman should use its experience to inform and lead better complaints handling across its area of jurisdiction. (Paragraph 76)

14.  We recommend that the Government's new legislation to create a simpler and more straightforward Ombudsman service should grant the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman the power to oversee complaints processes across its area of jurisdiction, and a formal role in setting standards and training in complaints handling.(Paragraph 77)

PHSO's public profile

15.  The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman would benefit from a higher public profile and should be free to engage the public about how it exercises its remit and powers. It should publicise more information on the outcome of cases, and so contribute more effectively to public debate. (Paragraph 81)

16.  The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) has already begun to put measures in place to publicise the outcomes of more cases. In support of this the Government's new legislation to create a simpler and more straightforward Ombudsman service should abolish the provision that restricts PHSO to laying reports only when Parliament is sitting. This would grant PHSO the freedom to publish not only more information about its work, but also as and when it sees fit.(Paragraph 82)

Accountability of PHSO

17.  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 the 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. (Paragraph 87)

18.  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.(Paragraph 88)

An English Ombudsman service?

19.  We believe that the creation of a single public services ombudsman for England would be beneficial. For complainants it would create a much simpler and more accessible ombudsman service, and for public services would allow learning and good practice to be disseminated more easily. The size of England does present a challenge for an Ombudsman, but we believe the creation of branch offices could go some way to addressing the issue and should be explored. (Paragraph 98)

20.  We recommend that the Government bring forward, and consult on, proposals to create a single public services ombudsman for England, bringing together, for example, the relevant parts of Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, Local Government Ombudsman, and Housing Ombudsman. The jurisdiction of any single public services ombudsman for England should include areas of public services that could benefit from an ombudsman service, including for example, some educational institutions. Branch offices for the public services ombudsman for Englandshould also be explored, to facilitate access for all parts of England and so the office can gather perspective on the performance of public services and administration from across the country.(Paragraph 99)

The implications of devolution: a UK Ombudsman?

21.  The present division of power between the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland presents a difficulty for those seeking to provide England with a national ombudsman service. Non-devolved matters require a UK-wide Ombudsman Service. As long as the UK Parliament and the UK Government are responsible for the law and administration of England as well as for UK non-devolved matters, there will be a need for a distinctive ombudsman service for these functions. (Paragraph 104)

22.  We recommend that the Government bring forward, and consult on, proposals to deliver an effective ombudsman service for UK non-devolved matters—in addition to that of a single public services ombudsman for England—in order to optimise an ombudsman service for the UK citizen in respect of those functions. This could be provided, for example, either as a single ombudsman with a dual role as UK and England Ombudsman, or the UK and England ombudsman services could each have separate legal personality.(Paragraph 105)


 
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Prepared 28 April 2014