More Complaints Please! and Time for a People's Ombudsman Service - Public Administration Committee Contents


Appendix 2: Time for a People's Ombudsman Service Government Response


Conclusions and recommendations

"MORE INVESTIGATIONS FOR MORE PEOPLE"

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

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 own arrangements for reviewing its decisions. (Paragraph 31)

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)

These are matters for the PHSO. Their 2013/14 Annual Report highlights some of the new processes and systems that they have been putting in place already. The Government welcomes their strategy through to 2018 and its commitment to increase the number of cases investigated. As the Committee makes clear, it will of course be essential that such a move does not lead to a diminution in the quality of decision making.

The Government welcomes the PHSO's commitment to investigate more complaints and understands complainants' desire for greater transparency of the process. It is important that the public services ombudsmen are able to operate with a sufficient degree of flexibility to enable them to handle as many complaints as possible in the most efficient and effective way. The Government will consider any evidence that existing frameworks or legislation are causing insurmountable constraints for the public sector ombudsmen, in this respect, in the course of the on-going review of the ombudsman landscape.

PHSO: "STUCK IN TIME"?

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 Cabinet Office already has an overarching policy responsibility across government in relation to ombudsman issues in general and shares, with the Department of Health, a specific sponsorship role for the PHSO. It acts as the Ombudsman's principal point of contact with government and maintains regular liaison arrangements with the Ombudsman both at official and Ministerial level. This relationship works well. It recognises and respects that the Parliamentary Ombudsman was set up by Parliament and is independent of Government.

In his review of the public sector ombudsman landscape, Robert Gordon will consider the structures and powers of the current ombudsmen, and will look at possible models for the future, including consideration of whether there is a case for a single public sector ombudsman. The Government will consider the conclusions of that review, alongside recommendations put forward by PASC, in concluding whether action, including legislation, is required to reform the existing landscape.

THE RESTRICTION OF DIRECT ACCESS

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 Government recognises the arguments for reform of the present system whereby complaints to the Parliamentary Ombudsman are made via a Member of Parliament, particularly in respect of clarity and transparency for complainants. The Government welcomes the Committee's indication of Parliament's view on this matter and will consider the role of the filter in any action taken forward following Robert Gordon's review of the wider landscape. It is important not to lose sight of the valuable role that an MP can add as an important advocate for a complainant.

THE CASE FOR ALLOWING TELEPHONE, ORAL AND ONLINE COMPLAINTS

We recommend that the Government's new legislation to create a simpler and more straightforward Ombudsman service should 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 Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 and the Health Service Commissioner Act 1993 require complaints to be made in writing, whereas an amendment to the Local Government Act 1974 allows for the Local Government Ombudsman to receive complaints in formats other than written.

The Government agrees that it is important that procedures and systems for those making complaints are clear and responsive, and that the public services ombudsmen are able to operate with the necessary flexibility to enable them to provide a service that keeps pace with technological developments and supports new channels of communication.

The public services ombudsmen themselves have noted that "in practice, the current constraints, where they exist, have not proved insurmountable".[1] The question of accessibility will be a key aspect of Robert Gordon's review of the ombudsman landscape, and any future work taken forward by the Government in this area.

THE CASE FOR 'OWN-INITIATIVE' POWERS

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 of own-initiative investigations. (Paragraph 72)

The on-going review of the ombudsman landscape will consider the role and powers of any future ombudsman structure. The Government recognises existing constraints in this area and the wider powers held by other national Ombudsmen in Europe who have the power to launch a 'systemic' investigation or an investigation on their 'own initiative'. The Government supports the Committee's view that the role of the Ombudsman should be maximised in respect of support public sector delivery improvement and will consider this issue in full following the conclusion of the Gordon review.

OVERSIGHT OF COMPLAINTS HANDLING

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)

The Government recognises the importance of the public services ombudsmen's work and supports their vital role in providing individuals with remedies for administrative injustice. Increasingly, the public services ombudsmen's wider work in the complaints arena is highlighting the positive benefits of effective complaint handling across the public sector, and the importance of learning and sharing good practice and experience. This aspect of their work is an important element in driving improvement and raising standards in public service delivery. The Government welcomes the Committee's recognition of the importance of this aspect of the PHSO's role and will consider how best to support this further as part of its wider consideration of reform to the landscape.

PHSO'S PUBLIC PROFILE AND ACCOUNTABILITY OF PHSO

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)

Robert Gordon's review of the ombudsman landscape will include consideration of the accountability lines of any future public sector ombudsman structure and how Government and Parliament can strike the right balance between supporting and maximising the role of the Ombudsman, whilst ensuring it remains suitably accountable for the effective use of public funds. The Government welcomes the Committee's support for increased focus on the Ombudsman's work within Parliament.

AN ENGLISH OMBUDSMAN SERVICE?

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 England should 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?

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)

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)

The Government has committed to undertake a review of the public sector landscape, and to look at the case for a single public sector ombudsman for England. The review will include consideration of the merits of a unified final tier complaint handling service and will consider the jurisdiction of such a body.

The Government welcomes the Committee's consideration of the implications of devolution on potential reforms to the public service ombudsmen. This will be an important part of any consideration of proposals for a reformed landscape within England and the Government will consider the Committee's recommendations alongside those put forward by Robert Gordon at the conclusion of his review.


1   Paragraph 3.8 Law Commission Report 'Public Services Ombudsmen' July 2011 Back


 
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Prepared 12 September 2014