Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Scrutiny 2020–21 – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

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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. Under Standing Order 146, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) scrutinises the reports the PHSO lays before Parliament, including its annual report and accounts. The Committee has previously set out that it will scrutinise the PHSO under the following categories moving forward:

  • casework and productivity;
  • staff management;
  • value for money; and
  • impact on other organisations.

The PHSO annual report produces information on the outcomes of all enquiries and complaints in the financial year. During 2020–21, the PHSO adapted its business approach to respond to the pandemic; this impacted the data it collected and the number of cases it processed. The PHSO has also received an increasing volume of cases and a rise in complex cases.

As of March 2021, the PHSO faced an unallocated casework backlog of over 3,000 cases. In response to this backlog, the PHSO is implementing productivity measures and requesting additional resources to increase the number of caseworkers. The PHSO has also taken the decision to stop processing level 1 and level 2 health complaints. The Committee received evidence suggesting the PHSO needs to improve the communication of this change and what it means for service users.

The PHSO reports its performance against its Service Charter. The Committee notes the PHSO has struggled to reverse the trend of weaker performing scores in some areas, such as giving a final decision on a complaint as soon as possible. Overall, other scores have remained relatively consistent, with some scores improving, such as in relation to keeping members of the public regularly updated on progress with their complaint.

The PHSO has improved its reporting style in response to earlier Committee recommendations. However, the Committee notes that there is scope for further improvements, both in the way data is reported and the way in which it is explained. Most notably, there is scope for including greater context for complainant cases and the effect this may have on their opinion of PHSO performance, for instance by adopting best practice modelled by organisations such as the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman in this regard.

On staff management, the Committee welcomes the commitment from the PHSO to improve engagement with its staff as well as the introduction of career development opportunities. The PHSO continues to implement the 2018 Donaldson Review recommendations to ensure suitably qualified staff are available to support the public. The PHSO acknowledges work is incomplete but indicates that good progress has been made to date. The Committee awaits further updates on the actions it is taking to deliver against the Donaldson Review recommendations.

The PHSO is evaluating how to best deliver value for money in response to the changed business environment following the pandemic and considering how it adapts to the longer-term hybrid model of working. Moreover, in our 2019–20 Report, the Committee concluded that regular peer review studies would be an important source of assurance over PHSO processes and value for money. The Committee reiterates its call to have this done as soon as possible and on a more frequent basis.

The Committee also reiterates calls for new legislation to update the PHSO as six years have elapsed since the publication of the Draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill and no further progress has been made to date.

The Committee notes and welcomes the PHSO’s strong external engagement both with the broader Ombudsman international community—through its reports, the Manchester Memorandum conference hosted in 2021 and twinning arrangements—and with stakeholders when developing complaints standards for the NHS and Government bodies.