The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) is the complaint handler of last resort for individuals who have complaints about public services provided by UK Government Departments and the NHS in England. The Ombudsman is independent of the Government. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) scrutinises the reports it lays before Parliament, including its annual report and accounts.
The PHSO has faced serious challenges in recent years, both external and internal, which led to a significant loss of public and stakeholder confidence in the organisation. A new Ombudsman, Mr Rob Behrens, was appointed in 2017. In 2018, following a recommendation from PACAC, the PHSO commissioned an Independent Peer Review to examine its ability to secure value for money in its work. The Peer Review concluded that “the [PHSO] is moving out of ‘critical care’ and into ‘recovery’. Overall, from facing a set of severe challenges, the organisation is on its way to becoming an efficient and effective modern ombudsman service …”. Although the peer review panel had confidence in the strategy set by the PHSO’s new leadership, they warned against complacency. They also made strong arguments that, to improve their ability to improve public services, the Ombudsman should be given the power to begin investigations on their own initiative and to set standards for complaint handling by the NHS in England and Government Departments. These are issues the Committee concludes should be looked at as part of the long-delayed legislation to update and simplify public sector ombudsmen in England. The Committee’s predecessor called for new legislation in 2014, and the Government published a draft Bill in 2016 but has yet to progress it any further.
The apparent need for national standards for complaints systems stems from the perception that efforts to improve complaint handling in the NHS in England following the Mid Staffordshire and related scandals have, in the words of the Ombudsman, “fizzled out”. This is unacceptable. The Committee has invited the Ombudsman to lay a report before Parliament providing further evidence on this.
In 2017/18 the PHSO completed fewer investigations, more slowly. This reduction in productivity, they argue, was a result of the major restructuring of the organisation made necessary by the severe challenges the Peer Review subsequently identified, including a 24% real terms reduction in the PHSO’s funding between 2015/16 and 2018/19. However, the PHSO believes that because of the investment they have made in training new caseworkers and introducing new casework systems productivity has already improved in the current year. The Committee therefore expects to see improvements in their next annual report.
Published: 25 March 2019