Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, has asked the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) to intervene on his behalf and summon the heads of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Environment Agency to appear before them to explain why they are ignoring his findings and refusing to compensate people.
The plea came during a hearing of the committee last week to examine the organisation’s progress and future plans to handle complaints. The committee also heard how the Ombudsman was hamstrung by the failure of the Cabinet Office to pass new legislation to give him greater powers and the latest progress in the 50swomen maladministration claim. More about this below. All these issues highlight weaknesses I have raised in previous blogs.
The DWP case involves 118,000 disabled people who suffered from years of benefit maladminstration . I wrote about this in August- see here. The complaint came from Ms U – via the London borough of Greenwich welfare rights office- who was put in the wrong lower category of the employment support allowance despite being in very poor physical and mental health with little or no savings The Ombudsman ordered the Department to pay her £7500 compensation and five years of arrears totalling £19,832.55 plus interest.
A National Audit Office investigation found that 118,000 people were in the same boat and should have been compensated alongside her following the Ombudsman’s ruling. But the DWP decided only to pay her and ignored everyone else. The pay out would have run to millions of pounds and the DWP decided it would ignore the Ombudsman because legally they can.
The second case involves one family but it is one of the most egregious cases I have heard in Whitehall. The case has been going on for 12 years and involves admitted maladministration by the Environment Agency over the issue of a water licence for a micro hydro project in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire. The Earl family who renovated a tumbledown watermill to use for the scheme was supposed to receive substantial compensation decided by an independent assessor appointed by the Environment Agency. who bungled their case. The money owing could amount to £3m as interest has piled up and the EA has refused to follow through the Ombudsman’s finding for years.
MPs also raised the issue of the Ombudsman’s lack of powers. John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor and a Labour member of the committee, has tabled a question to the Cabinet Office asking why they have not introduced legislation to do this. The issue is raised in an earlier blog here.
Mr McDonnell asked Robert Behrens:”Can you explain the practical implications of the Government’s lack of support for legislative reform? How does that hold you back from adhering to the Venice principles, which the Government have signed up to ?”
He told him: “Two of my counterparts have the power of own-initiative investigation. In cases like Windrush, the maternity scandal in hospitals or the issues with mental health, we could go out and look at an issue without it being complained about. We could resolve that issue before it went to a long-standing independent or public inquiry. The peer review panel said that other ombudsman schemes in Europe use that and have used it in Covid to good effect.”
He went on: “If you have 16 public service ombudsmen in the United Kingdom, it means that people do not know where to go. It means the profile of my office and other offices is lower than it would otherwise be. That is not satisfactory in terms of being the only organisation in the public service that provides redress free of charge to citizens. That is very important.”
He added that he saw no reason why a government could not introduce a bill to do all this straight after the next general election.
MPs Question chief executive on 50swomen pension investigation
Amanda Amroliwala, chief executive of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, was closely questioned by three MPs, Ronnie Cowan, SNP, John McDonnell and Lloyd Russell-Moyle, both Labour, on the maladministration complaints over the delay in paying 3.6 million 1950s born women.
On Stage 2 of the report, which has already been leaked on this website see here, she said: “We have not
finalised that stage of the report yet. We are in the process of receiving and analysing the very extensive comments that we have had from the Department and from the complainants who have brought the complaints to us”
Under further questioning she added: “We are looking at how those will need to change the
provisional views that are not yet public but that some individuals have had sight of. We will do that as soon as possible.” She would not commit a date for this report and the proposed remedy will be published except ” hopefully” between January and March next year. She was also quizzed on the level of compensation. Ronnie Cowan pointed out it could be anything from nothing to £10,000 but if it was maladministration only the top level was much less than £10,000 .She would not be drawn on how much this is likely to be.
John McDonnell reflected the frustration among MPs about the long delay in the Ombudsman producing a final report. “You can understand the scale of interest and concern there is amongst Members of Parliament. You will have seen that from the early-day motions. There is not an MP without a constituent who has been affected. The concern that people have is because of the age of many of our constituents. Some of them have already passed away. Others may not be here to receive any form of redress, if we delay beyond the next quarter of next year.”
There is another elephant in the room that was not discussed. If the DWP is refusing to pay 118,000 benefit claimants their compensation, why should they pay any of the 3.6 million 50swomen a penny beyond the six test cases who complained?
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