Updated: 2663 reasons why the Parliamentary Ombudsman is not working

Sir Robert Behrens

Earlier this year I reported on a letter sent by Sir Robert Behrens, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, to MPs on the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on why he could not implement a three year programme to improve the service for another year.

The letter revealed that Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, had decided not to go ahead with a three year funding plan to make it happen until 2022. As a result the Ombudsman would be expected to concentrate on complaints about Covid19 and would not have the budget to do much about improving the service beyond laying the bare bones of the idea.

I suspected that the service might be overwhelmed and asked for the figures on the number of people on the ” waiting list” to get their complaint heard and the number of cases where people were awaiting a decision. The media office declined to give me the information immediately and converted my press inquiry into a Freedom of Information request to delay it for 20 working days.

Physical queue could stretch from Millbank Tower to Westminster Bridge

We now know why. Figures released under that FOI request reveal that the Ombudsman show that a staggering 2663 people are in a virtual queue to await to be assigned to a caseworker. If everybody physically turned up ( not allowed at the moment due to the pandemic) it would stretch from the Ombudsman’s office at Millbank Tower right along the Embankment to the Houses of Parliament and possibly across Westminster Bridge.

They also released the figures awaiting a result from their complaint. That is 2699. So almost as many people are waiting to get to get a case worker to look into their complaint as the number of people waiting for a result.. That might explain the latest figures from the Ombudsman Office’s own performance standards review which shows that only 51 per cent gave a positive reply to the point “We will give you a final decision on your complaint as soon as we can”. It means 49 per cent weren’t impressed with that claim.

The Ombudsman’s Office have also told me that nowhere in their building is there ” any recorded information confirming that “the public will get worse service this year”. This seems to me more of an act of self denial than a possible statement of fact.

The Ombudsman seem to be relying on two mitigating developments to help them overcome this frankly appalling scenario.

Planned new NHS Complaints Handling Service

They are plans for a new model NHS Complaints Handling Service that will aim to take the pressure off the Ombudsman’s Office by trying to sort out patients’ complaints before they have to go to him. But as the section on this new procedure on the Ombudsman’s website discloses that these are only draft guidance. Participation by health bodies is voluntary and as yet plans for pilot projects have not been finalised. My guess is that probably the best health trusts will pilot it, the worst won’t want to know.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman’s latest controversial senior appointment: Rebecca Hilsenrath

The second move is the appointment of a £80,000 Director of External Affairs, Strategy and Communications to drive through the new strategy and report to Gill Fitzpatrick, chief operating officer. There is a full description on the headhunters website, Hays, of the job. Today ( April 12) the Ombudsman confirmed that the post had been filled by Rebecca Hilsenrath, the former chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who officially resigned last week. Three months ago Ms Hilsenrath was in the centre of a row that she had twice breached lockdown rules by going with her family to her Welsh country cottage. You can read about the allegations and her resignation in two articles I wrote for Byline Times articles here and here. By all accounts this is a very curious and controversial appointment.

Altogether the situation at the Ombudsman’s Office does not present a pretty picture. A cynic might say it is not a priority to put money into watchdog bodies because all it does is highlight problems when things go wrong. And a government that would love to stay in power forever wants to present the idea that the UK has world beating public services and hide anything that might detract from that propaganda.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman File

Here are previous stories on this blog on the issue

https://davidhencke.com/2021/03/20/revealed-the-ombudsmans-much-delayed-justice-train-for-50swomen-lost-pensions/

https://davidhencke.com/2021/02/21/parliamentary-ombudsman-dont-contact-us-well-contact-you/

https://davidhencke.com/2021/02/10/will-your-complaint-get-heard-as-the-government-forces-the-parliamentary-ombudsman-to-curb-its-service/

https://davidhencke.com/2021/01/25/why-the-archaic-parliamentary-and-health-ombudsman-needs-a-modern-make-over/

Women’s Discrimination: What is CEDAW

The CEDAW logo

Since CEDAW will become a major issue in the forthcoming People’s Tribunal to be held later this year. I thought it might be worth publishing what exactly the Convention says . A number of people have asked what exactly it means for them. Some wonder whether it can help the 3.8 million people who lost their case in the courts and were refused permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.

If you read this it sounds idealistic rather like some of the great statements of the past whether it was the founding fathers of the American Constitution or the founding charter of the United Nations. The reason why it is important is once this statement is written into law it follows that the law of the country has to change and people can cite the new law to end discrimination and protect their rights. This is statement is followed by an action plan on how the government of the day has to implement it. No wonder it has not yet been incorporated into English law.

Many many issues of discrimination against women will be affected

The answer is that all women would be affected by the change. CEDAW was cited by BackTo60’s lawyers in their case – but because even though the convention, ratified by Margaret Thatcher, is applicable in the courts and in Parliament because it had not been put into domestic law the judiciary they appear not to understand its implications.. If it was not only the 50swomen case but many, many other issues of discrimination against women will be on much stronger grounds.

Should as current opinion polls show the Scottish National Party win next month’s Parliamentary elections one of the first moves will include legislating to incorporate CEDAW into Scottish law. This will provide an early example of how effective the change will be for women and girls.

CONVENTION ON THE ELIMINATION OF ALL FORMS OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN

The States Parties to the present Convention,

Noting that the Charter of the United Nations reaffirms faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women,

Noting that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the principle of the inadmissibility of discrimination and proclaims that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth therein, without distinction of any kind, including distinction based on sex,

Noting that the States Parties to the International Covenants on Human Rights have the obligation to ensure the equal rights of men and women to enjoy all economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights,

Considering the international conventions concluded under the auspices of the United Nations and the specialized agencies promoting equality of rights of men and women,

Noting also the resolutions, declarations and recommendations adopted by the United Nations and the specialized agencies promoting equality of rights of men and women,

Concerned, however, that despite these various instruments extensive discrimination against women continues to exist,

Recalling that discrimination against women violates the principles of equality of rights and respect for human dignity, is an obstacle to the participation of women, on equal terms with men, in the political, social, economic and cultural life of their countries, hampers the growth of the prosperity of society and the family and makes more difficult the full development of the potentialities of women in the service of their countries and of humanity,

Concerned that in situations of poverty women have the least access to food, health, education, training and opportunities for employment and other needs,

Convinced that the establishment of the new international economic order based on equity and justice will contribute significantly towards the promotion of equality between men and women,

Emphasizing that the eradication of apartheid, all forms of racism, racial discrimination, colonialism, neo-colonialism, aggression, foreign occupation and domination and interference in the internal affairs of States is essential to the full enjoyment of the rights of men and women,

Affirming that the strengthening of international peace and security, the relaxation of international tension, mutual co-operation among all States irrespective of their social and economic systems, general and complete disarmament, in particular nuclear disarmament under strict and effective international control, the affirmation of the principles of justice, equality and mutual benefit in relations among countries and the realization of the right of peoples under alien and colonial domination and foreign occupation to self-determination and independence, as well as respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, will promote social progress and development and as a consequence will contribute to the attainment of full equality between men and women,

Convinced that the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the world and the cause of peace require the maximum participation of women on equal terms with men in all fields,

Bearing in mind the great contribution of women to the welfare of the family and to the development of society, so far not fully recognized, the social significance of maternity and the role of both parents in the family and in the upbringing of children, and aware that the role of women in procreation should not be a basis for discrimination but that the upbringing of children requires a sharing of responsibility between men and women and society as a whole,

Aware that a change in the traditional role of men as well as the role of women in society and in the family is needed to achieve full equality between men and women,

Determined to implement the principles set forth in the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and, for that purpose, to adopt the measures required for the elimination of such discrimination in all its forms and manifestations,

Independent panel of judges announced to head tribunal examining discrimination against women

Dr Jocelynne Stutt. Pic credit: Cambridge Labour Party

The campaign to introduce a comprehensive bill of rights for women by implementing in full the UN Convention for the Elimination of all Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) takes a major step forward this weekend.

Five high profile women -one a former judge – have agreed to serve on the panel which will sift evidence to be presented at the CEDAW People’s Tribunal later this year presided over by John Cooper, QC, a human rights lawyer,.

CEDAW is “like motherhood and apple pie” – John Cooper QC

John Cooper said the issue should not be controversial – ” it is like motherhood and apple pie”.

He said the tribunal should have three main goals – independence, transparency and authenticity.

” There are three main areas to investigate: Why CEDAW has never put into UK law; whether there was any good reason for not doing so, and most importantly, to make recommendations on what should happen next.”

The movement to implement comprehensive changes in the law for all women and girls has come from the historic unequal treatment of women and the exposure of poverty and hardship by women born in the 1950s who had to wait an extra six years for their pension. Campaigners pointed out that Margaret Thatcher had signed up to the convention as long ago as 1986 but it had never been properly implemented into UK law -despite Gordon Brown’s government passing the Equality Act in 2010.

Worse the position of the 50s women was just the tip of the iceberg of unequal treatment which covers everything from unequal pay to discrimination in the workplace and women being subject to harassment and sexual abuse and even given poor treatment in jails.

The tribunal will take place as the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales are considering implementing laws to apply the convention – leading to an extraordinary situation where women will have more rights and redress against discrimination and inequality in Scotland and Wales than in England. All this will bring home the issue to the present Tory government whether it wants to do anything about it or not.

The president of the new panel is the Hon. Jocelynne Annette Scutt, an Australian feminist and human rights lawyer and senior law fellow at the University of Buckingham. She has written about money, marriage and property rights and more recently about plastic surgery, women’s bodies and the law. She was Tasmania’s first anti discrimination commissioner and is a member of the Labour Party and the Australian Labor Party. She is a former judge in Fiji.

The other panel members are:

Christine Chinkin

Christine Chinkin, FBA is Emerita Professor of International Law, Professorial Research Fellow and Founding Director of the Centre of Women Peace & Security at LSE. 

She is a barrister, a member of Matrix Chambers. Together with H. Charlesworth, she won the American Society of International Law, 2005 Goler T. Butcher Medal ‘for outstanding contributions to the development or effective realization of international human rights law’. She is a William C Cook Global Law Professor at the University of Michigan Law School.

She has held visiting appointments in Australia, the United States, Singapore and the People’s Republic of China. She is currently a member of the Kosovo Human Rights Advisory Panel and was Scientific Advisor to the Council of Europe’s Committee for the drafting of the Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.

Jane Gordon

Jane Gordon MA (Oxon) LLM (Distinction) is a human rights lawyer with over 20 years’ experience working in human rights legal practice and policy at domestic, regional and international levels. Jane co-founded Sisters For Change with her sister, SFC Executive Director, in 2014. Jane was Human Rights Advisor to the Northern Ireland Policing Board (2003-2008) where she co-devised the first ever framework for monitoring the human rights compliance of the police.

In 2009-2010, she was appointed Human Rights Advisor to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary’s national policing protest review. Jane has litigated cases of serious human rights violations against Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine before the European Court of Human Rights, and advised national human rights institutions, public authorities and oversight mechanisms in Jamaica, India, Malawi, Iraq, Ireland and across the UK. Between 2008-2017,

Jane was a Senior Fellow at LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights and LSE’s Centre for Women, Peace and Security where she delivered LSE’s practitioner short course on Women’s Human Rights. In 2013-2014, Jane served as gender advisor/SGBV investigator with the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria. Jane is additionally a member of the Foreign Secretary’s Human Rights Advisory Group.

Aisha Gill : Pic Credit: Putney local website

Professor Aisha K. Gill, Ph.D. (University of Essex) CBE is Professor of Criminology at University of Roehampton. Her main areas of interest focus on health and criminal justice responses to violence against Black, minority ethnic and refugee (BMER) women in the UK, Georgia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Libya, India, Pakistan and Yemen. Professor Gill is often in the news as a commentator on early/child/forced marriage, violence predicated on ‘honour’, and sexual violence in South Asian communities.

Professor Gill has been involved in addressing the problem of violence against women and girls (VAWG) at the grassroots level for the past 21 years. She is invited adviser to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) strategic support group on investigations and complaints involving gendered forms of violence against women in the UK (including domestic violence); member of Liberty’s Project Advisory Group; member of Kurdish Women’s Rights Watch; Imkaan and Chair of Newham Asian Women’s Project (2004-2009). In October 2019, she was invited to join the Victims’ Commissioner’s Advisory Panel, chaired by Dame Vera Baird, QC.

Professor Fareda Banda Pic Credit:Black Female professors Forum.

Professor Fareda Banda, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University.

She joined SOAS in 1996. She has convened and taught English Family law, Human rights of women and Law and Society since then. She has also contributed to various courses including Alternative Dispute Resolution, Law and Development, Law and Development in Africa and Legal Systems of Asia and Africa.  She has supervised PhD theses on topics including children’s rights, sexual violence against women, post-conflict reconstruction and gender. She writes on women’s rights, family law, and, more recently, religion. Fareda has been an active member of the School’s Equality Committee, first in her capacity as the union equality officer and more recently as the representative of the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences.

The new panel members are delighted and honoured to be appointed. Dr Davina Lloyd, Chair of the CPT Steering Committee, said:” The well being of future generations is in excellent hands”.

Expect more of this on my blog as the campaign gains momentum throughout the rest of this year.

Updated: The Ombudsman’s much delayed justice train for 50swomen lost pensions

Sir Robert Behrens:Parliamentary Ombudsman

Parliamentary Ombudsman slips out progress report on 50s and 60s born women pensions complaint

It is commonly known in Whitehall that if want to bury bad news, choose an obscure part of your website, make a big announcement and don’t put out a press release .Yesterday I found out Sir Robert Behrens, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, has done just that.

His announcement on the progress of his four year long investigation on maladministration by the Department for Work and Pensions over notifying the women amounts to pretty much a non announcement. Partly this is because he is restricted by an Ombudsman law which urgently needs updating, Partly it is his own fault that he has made so little progress.

I suspect that he may have thought it was a good idea to make this announcement because it was clear from the recent report on the Ombudsman by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee that people are dissatisfied with his progress. There are conflicting reports that another announcement may be imminent to follow this up.

WASPI Cheltenham statement yesterday

Cheltenham WASPI 19th March

We understand that the Parliamentary & Health Service Ombudsman may make an announcement “imminently”.We expect that this will be the official result of the first stage of their investigation. This will decide whether there was maladministration when we were given inadequate notice of the changes to our State Pension Age.

There are three stages that must be completed before decisions about any compensation can be made:Stage 1: Was there maladministration?Stage 2: If so, did the maladministration lead to injustice?Stage 3: If so, what recommendations should be made to put things right? This could include compensation.It is important to remember that a positive decision on maladministration does not automatically mean that we will get compensation. It is only the first step in the process. Please note that any decision made by the Ombudsman will apply to ALL 1950s women affected by a delay to their State Pension, not just those who have made an official complaint.You can read full details of this process, and how compensation is calculated, here https://www.ombudsman.org.uk/complaints-womens-state…We will let you know as soon as we hear anything further. In the meantime please share this information with anyone you know who’s affected.”

ReplyForward

It will have to be good if it is meant to mollify people he hasn’t done a good job. The announcement is good in explaining to people how an Ombudsman handles an inquiry and why people need to be patient but bad in hiding his own mistakes which have contributed to this delay.

The worst example of this was his decision to pause the investigation in 2017 the moment it became clear that the BackTo60 group, campaigning for the women, were going to the courts for a judicial review on behalf of the 3.8 million women who thought they had been cheated by the decision.

Belatedly yesterday he has now admitted this was false.

“We have reviewed the Court of Appeal’s judgment and it does not affect our investigation. Our investigation is looking at the issues from a different perspective to the courts,” says the announcement.

DWP lawyers argued in court that the ministry had no obligation to tell the women

The announcement suggests that – despite the DWP’s lawyers arguing in the courts that under the 1995 Act the DWP had no obligation in law to tell anyone about the change – that the failure to inform everyone affected properly could have been maladministration. The announcement admits that the first stage of the investigation on this matter is complete and they have a preliminary finding but are not allowed by law – under the 1967 Ombudsman Act – to tell any member of the public about it.

The second clue is that he talks about the second stage – which is discussing any financial remedy for maladministration. This can only happen if the first stage is proved. The advice says there were “complaints that women were given inaccurate information about the number of years of National Insurance contributions they needed to receive a full State Pension. We will be looking at this issue as part of stage two of our investigation. “

  “Our investigation is looking at the issues from a different perspective to the courts,” Parliamentary Ombudsman

What is depressing for the women is what the Ombudsman has ruled out . He won’t investigate full restitution or the payments of ” auto credits” – up to five years of insurance contributions only for men over the age of 60. The auto credits are controversial because originally the government intended to give them to women between 2010 and 2018 when they raised the pension age.

Low compensation

The level of compensation is also likely to be low – the one example he gives is a figure of between £500 and £950. In fact the Ombudsman can order anything from an apology and no compensation to over £10,000 in the most extreme cases.

This will be a drop in the ocean for those who have lost £40,000 or more from this decision.

It looks like any compensation will be for all including women born in the 1960s as well as the 1950s.

The real scandal is how long this will take. Covid 19 has already killed a substantial number of women in this group and bad health, stress and poverty is putting many others at risk. You only have to read the comments from people on my blog to see this.

No idea when he will report

He can’t even give a ball park date when he will report. The more he delays the fewer people will get any compensation because they will be dead. Unlike other inquiries the grim reaper will keep reducing the size of the overall compensation package.

While Covid 19 has left the government with huge bills, the effect of the pandemic since it is more severe on the elderly is reducing the Treasury’s pension bill and killing off those who would have got a pension later.

I wouldn’t suggest that ministers would be so callous to welcome the huge number of deaths among the elderly, but it is certainly saving them a lot of money on pension costs.

Official: The Department of Work and Pensions has never bothered to assess the impact of raising the pension age on the 3.8 million women themselves

BackTo60 women outside the Royal Courts of Justice in 2019

It’s official. The Department for Work and Pensions has finally admitted after more than 25 years that they never thought of doing any impact studies on the effect of their decisions to raise the pension age from 60 to 66 for 3.8 million women.

A Freedom of Information request from a 1950s born woman seeking details of impact studies on the group of women most affected has forced the ministry to admit that there are none.

The letter says: “The Act does not oblige a public authority to create new information to answer questions; nor does it require a public authority to give advice, opinion or explanation, generate answers to questions, or create or obtain information it does not hold.
“If you ask a question, rather than requesting recorded information, we will provide you with the recorded information that best answers the question. Once we have provided the recorded information, we have met our obligations under the Act; interpreting the information provided is up to you.
“Your request makes statements and seeks to engage us in debate which you want us to
respond to. This would need new information to be created.”

No information held

It goes on : “We do not hold any recorded information of an impact assessment of the effects on women of the State Pension Age that informed the rises of 1995. However, you may find the following explanation useful. We have provided this outside our obligations under the FOI Act”.

The Department has released the White Paper that preceded the 1995 Pension Act and the impact statement the coalition government produced before implementing the 2011 Act which speeded up the rise. And guess what the ministry are right there is nothing about the impact on women before the government legislated for the change.

There is one concession – the idea of extending the auto credit of national insurance contributions to women. Men over 60 had this concession since 1983. Women would have had it once they started to raise their pension age from 60 in 2010 but of course this was never implemented and men continued to have it until 2018 when the pension age was equalised. Instead there is much concern repeated in the 2011 impact study of the effects of the change on business and occupational pensions. The 2011 impact study is more comprehensive but also concentrates on the savings the government will make.

Sir James Eadie

So no wonder Sir James Eadie QC when acting for the DWP in last year’s Court of Appeal case brought by BackTo60 to seek restitution for the 3.8 million affected made it clear that pensions were not a social measure aimed to reduce poverty or inequality. The ministry never had the issue on their radar when they introduced the change in 1995. These women were not even thought important enough to require an study on how it would affect their lives.

Afghanistan’s horrendous choice: War with women’s rights or peace with servitude

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Today is International Women’s Day and as my contribution I am focusing on Afghanistan as both the UK and the US cut their support to this country

I have recently come across a searing Congressional report from the United States Inspectorate on Afghanistan Reconstruction on the state of women’s and girl’s equality there.

Everybody knows the years of conflict which has cost British and American lives to rid the country of the Taliban regime and their horrendous treatment of women.

But this report shines a different light on the current plight of women just as the UK and the US are about to leave the country should a deal be possible between the war lords and the Taliban.

The United States has spent £564m in aid over nearly 20 years on women and girls

It reveals that during the never ending conflict from 2002 to 2020 the US has spent some £564.6 million on women and girls. On one level the achievement for women has been startling. From virtually no girls in schools under the Taliban there are now 3.5 million girls receiving an education. And a third of the country’s 210,000 teachers are now women but mainly in urban areas like Kabul.

There have been improvements in maternity care despite a horrendous death rate among pregnant women. Prenatal care coverage rose from 16 percent of pregnant women in 2002 to 61 percent in 2015. Postnatal care coverage increased from an average of 28 percent between 2005 and 2010 to 40 percent in 2015. And the number of trained midwives rose from a pathetic 467 in 2002 to roughly 4,000 in 2018.

There is, like many other areas, a huge disparity between urban and rural areas. Some 16 per cent of women died in childbirth in Kabul rising to an alarming 65 per cent in one rural province in 2002. This has improved with various estimates from the UK, Irish and World Health Organisation by between 19 per cent and 50 per cent, because reliable statistics are difficult to verify.

What has not improved particularly in rural areas is the attitude towards women. The US government also tried to encourage women to join the army and the police – this was the least effective of their programmes. “Targets have been highly unrealistic and unachievable. Although there has been a modest increase in the number of women police officers, women in all parts of the security forces face threats to their personal safety and pervasive harassment and discrimination,” says the report.

KABUL, 22 October 2019 – UNAMA Central Region Office in Kabul organized Global Open Day event, to facilitate discussion on women, peace, and security. The event was attended by 36 participants representatives from women rights activists, Government actors, schools’ teachers, local shuras, and university students. UNAMA CRO head of office In her opening remarks emphasized the importance of the Global Open Day as a forum to review the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. UNAMA Photo / Fardin Waezi.

The US aid has had more effect in getting women involved in politics and the community. The report says: “Afghan women have assumed leadership roles at the national, provincial, district, and community levels. At the same time, they face threefold threats: continued or intensified violence, the risk of Afghan peace negotiations leading to erosions of women’s rights, and a dire economic and humanitarian situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Covid 19 has caused big problems in Afghanistan. The report says: “The lack of testing capability means that up to 90 percent of collected samples are untested, and therefore go unreported. Of the limited number of tests conducted, Afghanistan’s positivity rate—the percentage of tests that reveal COVID-19 infection—was nearly 43 percent as of July 2020, one of the highest in the world.”

The World Bank is alarmed that widespread poverty will become worse as the Afghan economy is hit by the pandemic cd see those living in poverty rise to 72 per cent of the population. Cultural problems make treatment for women worse. “Due to deeply entrenched sociocultural norms, many Afghans are reluctant to allow their mothers, wives, daughters, or sisters to visit a doctor directly, or at all, if that doctor is a male.”

The future is not rosy in other areas for women. The report found “Some of the gains made for girls in access to education may not be sustainable, since a large portion of the education sector in Afghanistan is dependent on international donor funding for maintaining and expanding those gains.”

No level playing field for men and women in meetings

And it is not a level playing field in political meetings. One woman told the report “When we have meetings and both men and women raise their hands and show their cards, the respect that is given to men is not given to women. The time which is given to men is not given to women. When a woman speaks, she is not allowed to speak more than three minutes, but a man is allowed to speak more than 15 minutes.”

Women are still scared in many parts of the country to go out alone as they can face harassment and violence from men. SIGAR interviewed 65 people from all Afghanistan’s 14 provinces and both men and women said it was society’s constraints that held women back.

The time which is given to men is not given to women. When a woman speaks, she is not allowed to speak more than three minutes, but a man is allowed to speak more than 15 minutes.”

Afghan woman

Many interviewees—male and female—said that social and cultural norms are one of the biggest barriers to Afghan women’s advancement, particularly in rural areas. “Men in our community think the role of women is to sit at home and cook. If their mothers tell them to behave well with their wives, so they do, and if their mothers order them to beat their wives and misbehave, so they also do,” said a woman from Nangarhar Province.

President Biden will decide soon whether to completely pull out of Afghanistan which was the policy of the Trump administration. The UK, according to a leaked report to Open Democracy will cut aid sharply to Afghanistan shortly. Once again it will be women who will lose out and many of their fragile gains could once again be lost. As the report said if the Taliban and other war lords regain full control “the effort to promote women’s rights may be hampered by a growing narrative in Afghanistan that the country can either have women’s rights at the cost of peace, or peace at the cost of women’s rights.”

The full report by SIGAR is worth a good read.

Updated:Why the archaic Parliamentary and Health Ombudsman needs a modern make over

Rob Behrens: The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Pic Credit: Ombudsman’s Office

If you have a complaint about a government department or the National Health Service your last port of call is Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. He is the current post holder of an institution set up 54 years ago by the second reforming Labour government led by Harold Wilson.

A report by MPs today is both critical of the performance of the Ombudsman – particularly over transparency – and of the government for not even considering new legislation to give the Ombudsman fresh powers and bring its work into the 21st century.

The minister blocking any change is Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister. He has ruled out any new law that could streamline the operation by combining its work with the local government and social care ombudsmen; give it powers to initiate investigations and strengthen its work dealing with complaints.

Michael Gove: Blocker in chief in making sure the Ombudsman can’t do his job properly Pic credit: BBC

No doubt as one of the country’s leading power couples – Michael Gove and Sarah Vine – are able to use their influence through the current ” chumocracy” to deal with any complaints they might have without having to resort to anybody like the Parliamentary Ombudsman But for ordinary people it is quite different

As the Chair of the Public Administration, and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Tory MP William Wragg MP said:

“The Committee appreciates the pressing priorities facing the Government, including, of course, the current pandemic. But reform of the legislation governing the PHSO is worthy of parliamentary time. The PHSO represents the final stage in a complaints process that can be traumatic for complainants and may include serious matters such as the death of a loved one. It is essential that people have faith in a transparent, effective organisation. The current out-dated legislation undermines this crucial ambition”. 

No action yet on long standing 50s women complaint

This leaves questions about how good Rob Behrens is in doing his job given the current restraints. He is currently looking at whether women born in the 1950s are entitled to any compensation for maladministration for failing to notify them of the raising of the pension age. And he is taking his time about it – despite MPs encouraging and recommending WASPI supporters to follow this route. Indeed the report includes a complaint from Frances Martin:

Her submission said:( I have left the capital letters) “There Is Still No Definitive Time Line For Finalisation, Nor, Importantly Has There Been Any Attempts To Provide An Impact Assessment, Notwithstanding, All Of The Above I Am Without Any State Aid Benefits Since Nov 2015, Am Redundant In A Jobs Blackspot And Have Been Excluded From Financial Assistance Through Rishi Sunak’s Furlough Scheme. As A Woman Of Over 60 Am At Greater Risk With Regard To The Covid Outbreak. None Of These Facts Seem To Have Been Considered By An Organisation Which Purports To Be Fair/Impartial Etc And Certainly Is Not Best Practice In Any Organisation That I Have Worked In Both In The Uk And Overseas.”

Both the MPs and the general public have raised a number of shortcomings. For a start he muddies the waters on the cases he takes up. The MPs report he conflates cases that “are not ready to be taken forward” and “should not be taken forward” so we don’t know what he is doing. He doesn’t report on the number of partial decisions.

He was accused of misleading Parliament by not proactively reporting that you can’t directly compare the figures for the number of cases referred to him over the last two years – because a new digital case system has made it impossible.

Since this blog was published there has been a sharp exchange of views between the Ombudsman and the chair of the committee over whether Rob Behrens misled Parliament by not proactively reporting the number of cases referred to him accurately. Mr Behrens accused the committee of being ” factually inaccurate” in suggesting this. William Wragg, the chairman, stood his ground and said MPs felt there were discrepancies in his evidence and it was important the Ombudsman updated information to MPs in a timely manner. He said that did not mean he was misleading Parliament. Letter exchanges are here and here.

He comes out well in treating people with dignity and respect and listening to their claims. But comes out badly for the time he takes to come to a decision and explaining it to the complainant.

More seriously he doesn’t seem to check back with the complainant that he has got all the information or give them a progress report.

” systemic disability discrimination in the Ombudsman’s office”

The report also contains some very critical comments from the public about the Ombudsman’s handling of some cases. MPs don’t investigate them but attach them to the report.

In one just known as A7 on the death of a disabled child in NHS care the person wrote: “In my and the experience of other parents of disabled children, rather than impartially investigating concerns concerning disabled children, with parity of esteem, investigations seem to be focused on justifying the actions of health professionals, however, unreasonable that behaviour is.”

The person added: “This seems to be a manifestation of the systemic disability discrimination found in poor parts of the NHS spreading to the PHSO office.”

Another from Dr Minh Alexander and Ms Clare Sardari on “a mishandled referral to the Care Quality Commission under Regulation 5 Fit and Proper Person, about an NHS trust director who had been found guilty of proven whistleblower reprisal and breach of the NHS managers code of conduct (an under-declared family interest), who was subsequently convicted of fraud and also criticised for her attempts to resist the proceeds of crime process.”

Ombudsman can’t “deliver accountability and good governance”

They conclude: “There was a lack of rigour by the PHSO in pursuing compliance with its recommendations for corrective action by the CQC, notwithstanding its lack of enforcement powers. It seemed to us that a procedural box had been ticked and thereafter, the PHSO was not interested in enough in ensuring that there was learning or genuine remedy of injustice.”

“We do not consider that the PHSO model is robust enough to deliver accountability and good governance in public life, because of insufficient powers and the lack of a duty on the PHSO to enforce improvements and corrections. It does not seem good value for money (budget 2019-20: £25.942 million) and we ask parliament to consider an alternative model of conflict resolution.”

I could go on with other examples. Suffice to say both Mr Michael Gove and Mr Rob Behrens seem to have a lot of explaining to do. Mr Gove for not bothering to do a thing about updating and strengthening the Ombudsman’s role and Mr Behrens for not being up front with complainants on how he is conducting his investigations.

Revealed: The poor health in old age scandal

Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, gave evidence on the damning statistics effecting the healthy living prospects for the elderly Pic credit: gov.uk

Today the House of Lords published an extremely worrying report into the prospect for millions of elderly people being able to enjoy a healthy old age.

I had not realised that Theresa May’s government had committed in 2017 to the Ageing Society Grand Challenge – a promise by 2035 that everybody in the country should be able to enjoy an extra five years good health in retirement. I have a feeling like the notice of the first raising of the pension age it has had little publicity.

Readers of my blog who have followed the BackTo60 campaign to get 3.8 million women born in the 1950s full restitution for their lost pensions will greet this aim with a hollow laugh – given there is growing anecdotal evidence that many women in their early 60s are already falling ill while working before they can even claim their pension. I wrote a blog about the figures in 2018 – see here.

But what this report confirms is not only that life expectancy has flatlined since 2011 but prospects for a healthy retirement has got worse particularly for the poor. The report reveals that the chances for a man to get an extra five years healthy retirement will take not 14 years as promised by the challenge but an incredible 75 years. They will be long dead by 2096.

For a woman it is actually worse – chances of having an extra five years healthy retirement is receding and getting worse by the day.

Figures in the report confirm what the Office for National Statistics has disclosed that Britain is slipping down the league table of advanced countries for those living longer – with men, who on average die earlier than women, have a higher increase in longevity than women. See my blog on this here.

Growing equality gap between rich and poor areas

But what is deeply disturbing is the huge gap between those in wealthy and deprived areas.

The report says: “In England in the period 2016–18, the difference in life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas was 9.5 years for males and 7.5 years for females. The differences in healthy life expectancy are 18.9 years for males and 19.4 years for females.”

The report notes: “the health situation is somewhat similar to other countries that have experienced
political, social and economic disruption and widening social and economic inequalities.” The report also noted that “in some of the key social determinants, inequalities are widening in England”.

The largest killer of men is heart disease and for women it is Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. Heart disease deaths are falling while dementia is on the rise which explains the changes in longevity.

In a 2016 analysis of 20 countries, females in the UK had the lowest rate of improvement in life expectancy, followed by those in the USA. For males, the UK had the second-lowest rate of improvement,
after the USA.

The report concludes:” Inequalities in healthy life expectancy are stark, with people in the least deprived groups living more than 18 years longer in good health than those in the most deprived groups.”

This also hit ethnic minorities very badly as evidence given by Professor Chris Whitty , the chief medical officer to peers. He told them: “People from ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty in older age; 29% of Asian or Asian British people and 33% of Black or Black British people over the age of 65 live in poverty, compared with 14% of White people.”

Will it get better or worse?

So what is to be done and will it get worse ? For a start it will get worse because of Covid19 as the report was mainly written before the pandemic took hold and it is known that Covid killed disproportionately larger numbers of the elderly saving the DWP over £600m a year in pension payouts. In a postscript to the report the peers from science and technology committee say both short term and long term effects are an unknown.

On the positive side new technologies and robotics and new drug trials to treat diseases promise to make life better for the elderly provided they can access them.

Peers warn that unless growing inequality is tackled by the government – these benefits could widen the gap between rich and poor as wealthier pensioners would be able to benefit while the poor would be left behind.

The report also exposes the lack of a government strategy at the top to tackle this.

Peers say: “The Government is not on track to achieve the Ageing Society Grand Challenge mission to ensure five years of extra healthy life by 2035 while reducing inequalities, and does not appear to be monitoring progress towards the mission. It is hard to see how the target could be met without significant changes to the way it is managed.”

For those who criticise the House of Lords as an irrelevant institution – this report shows the House working at its best – it is a very thorough, well researched report – drawing attention to an overlooked issue and warning the government that it needs urgently to act to take this seriously. Whether it will, given the complacency of some ministers, is another matter.

The full report can be accessed here.

Top cardiologists back Usha Prasad’s fight against ” badly behaving ” health trust

Dr Usha Prasad

Just before Christmas I carried a blog on a tribunal held in Croydon looking into allegations of sexism and racism brought by Usha Prasad, the sole woman cardiologist employed by the Epsom and St Helier University Health Trust. The case centred round an anonymous letter by a junior doctor who believed she put patient safety at risk and sent it to the chief executive, the Care Quality Commission, the General Medical Council; Jeremy Hunt, then secretary of state, and one of her patients.

She lost the case at a bizarre hearing presided over by employment judge Katherine Andrews which would only discuss whether the letter was racist or sexist.

But now two very eminent cardiologists Professor Jane Somerville and Dr David E Ward, have come forward to speak out in her defence – and raise much wider issues about how our National Health Service is being run and how trusts are using taxpayers’ money to pay large sums to lawyers to silence people who raise uncomfortable issues they would rather brush under the carpet.

Professor Jane Somerville, now 87, is one of the country’s leading cardiologists. She recently was awarded the World Heart Federation Award for Outstanding Contribution to Cardiovascular Health for defining the concept and subspecialty of grown-ups with congenital heart disease (GUCH) and being chosen as the physician involved with Britain’s first heart transplantation in 1968.

David E Ward has recently retired as a cardiologist at St George’s Hospital, in South London.

Jane Somerville: Pic Credit: World Heart Foundation

This is Jane Somerville’s detailed comment:

“There are many serious problems that are illustrated from this sad report of the ruining of a young doctor’s career as a cardiologist. She was an obvious target for bullying, harassment, and victimization by management at all levels. Why? Because she was Asian (foreign), small and female. This is such easy picking for those in charge to establish a continuous stream of it as indeed is shown over years.

“What is of more concern is the failure of the regulatory bodies and support services on which we have been brought up in medicine to believe they will be there for us to help give advice and support when in need. Just to name a few involved in this case: BMA, legal representation, GMC, MPA or MDU and indeed, the civil law itself. This is particularly important as the offending trust can afford on taxpayers money to engage the best advisors and the young doctor cannot afford to enlist such help.

questioning integrity and fairness of the judiciary

“Now from this case, one is forced to question the integrity and fairness of the actual judiciary. This is something one hopes in a civilised country one would never need to do. However in this case it is clear to assume that what has been reported is true, that the judge was biased against Dr Prasad with more than one example and did not allow relevant evidence (letters) to be shown.

  “It is clear from the beginning of this case which started with simple complaints related to poor bureaucratic and system management which was influencing safety and comfort of patient management and continuing a few months later with acceptance from the trust with anonymous letters from her junior colleague and unacceptable behaviour in contacting one of her patients, that the trust was not interested in being even handed to her and worse, wanted to get rid of her.

bullying trusts

 ” In these current times of enormous difficulty and pressure in the NHS where it is clear that junior staff and nurses are needed and should be valued and cared for, that one must wonder why anyone would want to work in this trust or other trusts who have shown similar behaviour, victimising a young useful doctor. Despite what claimed, doctors who draw attention to something wrong for patients or staff safety (whistleblowing), have little or no protection in the bullying Trust.

The Department for Health with all its talk needs to address this matter urgently and stop just giving lip service to the excellent recommendations (Sir Robert Francis QC) that have been made to them. They must be made responsible for this bad behaviour by trust managers which alas is not unique to Dr Usha Prasad.

Dr David E Ward

Dr David E Ward commented earlier on my blog as aceofhearts44. He is now happy to repeat his view in his own name.

“I know Dr Prasad as friend and colleague. I and a senior eminent British cardiologist have been supporting her cause for sometime. It is astonishing that what was initially an anonymous complaint has led to a chain of events culminating in the dismissal of a small, female doctor of Asian descent. It smacks of bullying, victimisation and other behaviours doesn’t it?
Something is seriously amiss in this story. It needs to be exposed. It’s heartening that a respectable journalist has taken an interest (we tried unsuccessfully to get others involved). Let’s hope justice is done. Sadly I’m not optimistic. We will continue to support Dr Prasad in any way possible.”

Something seriously wrong in the NHS

These are not the only people who are concerned. I have had a number of people contact me – some in confidence – who are raising similar behaviour elsewhere – and want me to look into other cases. Since this is not a mass circulation blog – with the exception of the campaign I have backed for justice for the 1950s born women who are having to wait another six years for their pensions – it suggests to me that there something seriously wrong in the NHS and needs a thorough investigation. Otherwise I would not have such a strong response.

How a leading expert on home working is stymied by the government’s “litany” of failures to deliver broadband

John Howkins. You can find him at johnhowkins.com

MPs condemn multiple failures on planned broadband provision

John Howkins is well known in the creative industry as an innovator, author and an international speaker. His books – particularly relevant in the present pandemic – highlight a new way to look at work based at home. His latest book ” Invisible Work” concentrates on how people in work can adapt to the new age of artificial intelligence rather than be made redundant by it.

His world centres on publishing, TV, film, digital media and streaming – all the new technologies brought to us by the huge growth of the new digital age.

Supreme Irony

It is therefore a supreme irony that his opportunity to engage in this age of isolation has been wrecked by a Conservative government breaking its manifesto promise to bring broadband to everyone. The failed manifesto pledge – only a year after it was made – is highlighted today in a new report from the all party House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

For Mr Howkins’ problem is that he lives in rural Norfolk near Attleborough in the Parliamentary constituency of Mid Norfolk represented by Tory MP George Freeman – a tech enthusiast who has written pamphlets on how technology can save the NHS. But as yet has done nothing to help his constituents get the broadband they need.

Mr Howkins like millions of others living rural Britain has no proper broadband that can download videos in seconds or easily stream Netflix or the BBC I Player. And today MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee tell you why.

On November 20 last year Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, unceremoniously dumped the promise to all voters to get fast broadband by 2025 – and substituted a promise for 85 per cent coverage – dumping most rural parts of the UK ( and many Tory voters) in the process. Cynics might suggest the Tories only made this pledge because Jeremy Corbyn, for Labour, had promised a universal free broadband service – saying it should be a basic utility in the 21st century like water or electricity.

Ministry admits target unachievable

The MPs report concludes that not only in ministers’ words ““clear that Government’s 2019 election pledge to deliver nationwide gigabit broadband connectivity by 2025 was unachievable”  but that even this lower target will be missed.

There is supposed to be £5 billion of our money put aside to bring this about but the report reveals that the Department for Culture ,Media and Sport, has yet to allocate 75 percent of this money one year into government for the contracts to do this.

It also warns : PAC is “increasingly concerned that those in rural areas may have to pay more, and may reach gigabit broadband speeds late” and is not convinced that “if and when rural users finally do get gigabit broadband, they will enjoy the same choice of service provider and the same protections as their urban counterparts”.

The scoreboard of failures by the ministry is appalling Mps found:

  • failure to make meaningful progress to tackle the barriers faced by operators in maximising gigabit connectivity by 2025,
  • failure to demonstrate it has learnt lessons from the superfast programme for the detailed design of the gigabit programme,
  • failure to demonstrate how its centralised procurement model will retain the people, skills and knowledge in local authorities that were critical to success in the superfast programme,
  • failure to give any reassurance that local authorities will get additional funding to retain their expert resources at a time when local government finances are under severe pressure from the pandemic,
  • failure to make any meaningful progress in delivering the policy and legislative changes deemed essential by industry to achieve rapid roll-out,
  • failure “yet again” to prioritise consumers in rural areas

Well done culture secretary Oliver Dowden ( NOT )!

Meg Hillier: chair of the Public Accounts Committee

Meg Hillier MP, Labour Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “With the grim announcement that the country and economy will be locked down for months, the Government’s promises on digital connectivity are more important than ever. But due to a litany of planning and implementation failures at DCMS, those promises are slipping farther and farther out of reach – even worse news for the “rural excluded” who face years trying to recover with substandard internet connectivity.  

“For the foreseeable future, ever more of our lives is moving online, whether we like it or not. Government cannot allow digital inequality to continue to compound and exacerbate the economic inequality that has been so harshly exposed in the Covid19 pandemic. It needs to be clear about timelines in each area so that businesses and individuals can plan for their digital future.”

As for Mr Howkins, his submission to MPs said: ” My current supplier is BT. I have an upload speed of a maximum of 0.3MB and a download speed of 3.0 MB.  BT engineers have visited three times in the past few months and have been unable to improve on these speeds. Several neighbours are in the same position.

“It is therefore difficult to carry on business at present. Our ability to receive even a moderately sized data file is limited. It is impossible to upload a video file of any significant size. Interactive usage (banking) often fails. This week, I led presentations in China and Chile. My own internet link was worse than anyone else’s”

… “The suppliers celebrate their gigabit services but do nothing for those, like me, who would be delighted to have a much lower rate, say 10MB down and 2-3 up.

Regulatory failure

” It is a regulatory failure in the UK that broadband providers are evaluated according to national averages rather than the meeting of local need. So they benefit much more by providing 1GB to a one location, even if it is seldom used, than by providing an increase of 10MB to 10 locations. And providing 1GB to one location is treated as the equivalent to providing 10MB to 100 locations.”

” The pandemic has shown up the extent of the government’s failure.  Although offices will re-open to some extent, the numbers working from home will increase.

I find it extraordinary in 2020 that the UK does not have universal service for broadband as it has for other utilities. Yes, broadband is a utility. “

He told me that he had been reduced to finding a friend who had better connections to do a lot of his work. His only alternative would be to use a local library which had restricted opening times.

He must be one among millions who have this problem and the UK is far behind other European countries.

” I’d be happy if we could reach the standards available in Romania”, he said.