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/

A toxic indictment of the bungled nuclear decommissioning mess that cost taxpayers millions

Steve Holliday: A damning report Pic Credit: Twitter

Report recommends a root and branch review of the National Decommissioning Authority

You have a right as a citizen to be kept safe from any dangerous pollution from the ageing 12 closed Magnox nuclear reactors and research stations in the UK. You would expect the organisation protecting us to hand out properly thought out contracts to do the job. The failure by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to organise a £6.6 billion contract to clean up properly cost taxpayers £97.5 million when rival companies who lost out successfully sued the agency forcing them to settle with them.

This month completely unnoticed by the national press Steve Holliday, the former chief executive of the National Grid, published a damning report on how the agency failed to do its job and the failure of its supervising body, the UKGI, to supervise it and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to keep tabs on what was going on.

So frightened were former senior executives of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority(NDA) of his inquiry report that they rushed to the High Court to try and get a judicial review to stop him ruining their reputations. They failed but delayed the report.

For the record they were John Clarke. the former NDA chief executive; Stephen Henwood, the former chairman; Robert Higgins, the former head of legal services; Mr Graeme Rankin, former head of competition and Mr Sean Balmer, former commercial director, He has spared their blushes by not naming them personally in his report.

Steve Holliday had in his remit the power to recommend disciplinary action against them for their failings. But he chose not to do so instead blaming the culture of isolation in the nuclear industry in general and the running of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in particular.

NDA failed to keep a grip

In broad terms the NDA failed to keep a grip on what has happening after they awarded the contract to the Texas company Cavendish Fluor Partnerships before it ended up in the courts where it was successfully challenged by rivals Energy Solutions and Bechtel. The original contract was changed so much and cost so much more – latest estimate is up to £8.9 billion that the companies who lost out were able to sue.

So imbued were the senior staff at the NDA with how clever they were in organising procurement contracts that they missed warning signs and worse didn’t inform the NDA board what was really going on until it was too late. The UKGI is revealed to have a conflicting role – both supervising it and sympathetically helping it sort out problems. He rightly suggests that it should be stripped of its day to day supervision.

The report says : “There appears to have been a culture that sought to self-justify, and which was inward looking. In particular: the NDA had a belief in its own skills and intellectual ability, and did not recognise or seriously contemplate that it may have any weaknesses, when contracting and managing external advisers, it had a propensity to limit their role, and did not appear to welcome strong challenge; and it failed to take sufficient steps to bring in people from other industries with different skills and experience, and to learn lessons from them.”

Damning conclusions picked up by a whistleblower

His criticism of the culture of the NDA has been picked up by Alison McDermott, a whistleblower taking the NDA and Sellafield to an employment tribunal, and may be quoted in her case expected later this year. The BBC recently did an exposure on bullying and harassment at Sellafield. The link to the story is here.

He recommends a root and branch review of the NDA by the business ministry- which has now handed the contract back in house – changing its structure and bringing in people from outside the nuclear industry and putting a top flight lawyer on the board.

I am worried that since there was so little publicity about this report whether the ministry will have the incentive to do anything about it. If it doesn’t we could see more waste of taxpayers’ money and we need changes for our safety in cleaning up some of the most toxic sites in the country.

Four years ago Sir Amyas Morse, then comptroller and auditor general , said “The NDA’s fundamental failures in the Magnox contract procurement raise serious questions about its understanding of procurement regulations; its ability to manage large, complex procurements; and why the errors detected by the High Court judgement were not identified earlier.”

We now need the National Audit Office and MPs on the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee to keep an eye on this. He also has wider recommendations for the rest of Whitehall when it hands out big contracts.

Bradwell Nuclear Power Station; Being decommissioned under this contract

Previous Stories https://davidhencke.com/2017/10/26/nuclear-decommissioning-how-whitehall-turned-toxic-waste-into-a-dirty-mess/

https://davidhencke.com/2020/12/11/the-latest-toxic-progress-on-the-great-nuclear-decommissioning-mess/

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.

Whitehall embarrassment: How the DWP took 16 months to respond to a MPs report that single mums were turning to “survival sex” because of Universal Credit

It was a subject of great embarrassment to officials at the Department for Work and Pensions. A prominent committee of Mps then chaired by the Independent MP, Frank Field, decided to hold an inquiry into why people having to wait five weeks to get their first Universal Credit payment were turning to offer sexual services to men to make ends meet.

That is not the sort of news that people responsible for the ministry’s flagship benefit wanted to hear. So they sent what MPs called a “defensive, dismissive and trite” submission. Instead of wanting to know why this might be happening the officials immediately tried to dismiss the idea.

As the MPs say: “The Department’s first written response to our inquiry addressed the narrow question of whether there is a “direct causative link” between Universal Credit and “prostitution”. The Department displayed little interest in either the lived experience of claimants or the expertise of frontline support organisations.” Indeed, officials tried to blame everything but the benefit, citing drug addiction, the rise of AirBnB, even EU immigration.

Then matters took an unexpected turn. Will Quince, the junior minister for family support and benefit delivery took against his officials. As the report said: the committee held “an evidence panel in private with B, K, M and T: four women who are, or have been, involved in survival sex or sex work.”

“Given our concerns about the Department’s engagement with our inquiry, we invited the Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance, Will Quince MP (the Minister), to attend our private panel with B, K, M and T. We hoped that hearing directly from people with lived experience of the relationships between sex work, “survival sex” and UC would help the Department to better understand the issues.”

The evidence was graphic:”I am about to be moved on to Universal Credit. I will lose £200 a month, approximately […] The thought of going into debt and having no money is really frightening. I have children. I can’t do that. I will sell my body. – K”

“I am about to be moved on to Universal Credit. I will lose £200 a month. The thought of going into debt and having no money is frightening I will sell my body”

“I didn’t go out looking for it, I said no at first. It wasn’t until about three weeks later
that I said ‘OK, yeah,’ because I thought I need to, because I need money […] It was
during the eight weeks that I was waiting to get the Universal Credit. I couldn’t wait
eight weeks for money. I just couldn’t. – Julie”

Will quince MP and DWP minister: Pic credit: willquince.com

It changed the minister’s mind and he wrote a letter to the committee apologising for his official’s submission, He wrote a letter to the committee praising the bravery of the people who came forward and in evidence later made it clear that he disagreed with his officials submission. The submission was revised.

The report came out in October 2019 and it proposed some practical ways to change the situation – particularly ending the now 5 week delay before people can get any money. The ministry has tweaked the rules and allowed people to take out loans which they have to start paying back after three months and they are reducing the maximum amount each month that has to be repaid. But the ministry will not budge over the wait. Fast forward 16 months and the ministry have finally replied to the MPs now with a new chair, Labour MP Stephen Timms. Earlier this week he commented: “The experiences of survival sex heard by the last committee act as a reminder of the hugely damaging impact that the wait for a first Universal Credit payment has been having on so many for so long. The Government’s latest rejection of constructive proposals for cutting the five week wait goes down as another wasted opportunity to rectify the harm it is causing to many vulnerable people.”

The reply, in my view, also tried to evade the issue. They have written a new guide. As their response said:

“The Department has developed a new Universal Credit Detailed Help and Support Guide for stakeholders, partners and support organisations to help vulnerable claimants get the financial and practical support they need, including helping them to make a claim for Universal Credit.

The new guide has been drafted and designed by working in collaboration with key stakeholders, including organisations who provide support and other areas where further detailed information is deemed beneficial.”

New DWP guide still not published

Unfortunately it is still to be published. On the specific issue the response said:

“Our Work Coaches are trained to encourage disclosure in the most complex and sensitive
of situations. This includes domestic abuse, modern slavery and immigration concerns.
We deliver this type of support daily across our jobcentres.”..The acts of buying and selling sex are not in themselves illegal in England and Wales. However, there are many activities that can be associated with prostitution which constitute offences.”

It goes on to talk about modern slavery and sex trafficking which are serious issues. But I feel it still doesn’t address the main point – the problem people have feeding their family while they wait five weeks for their first payment. My feeling is that the officials are still embarrassed by these revelations. The women involved are not slaves nor are they being used as sex traffickers – they are desperate for money and this is an extreme example of what happens when they are. It brings it back to the very issue officials won’t talk about – the structure of Universal Credit.

The Tories pathetic and divisive start to their promised target for 100 per cent electric cars by 2035

Mercedes EQC electric car at the Paris Motor Show: pic credit: Wikipedia

Government under fire from the NAO as Which? reveals extra costs of electric cars

This month two reports – one from the National Audit Office and another from the consumer organisation Which? – put the government’s ” Green agenda” promise to cease internal combustion engine production in 2030 and end hybrid- electric/petrol and diesel production by 2035 to a savage test.

Read together they show the government’s programme is severely wanting and so far made little impact despite all the hype of adopting a Green agenda. The public have started buying electric cars in appreciable numbers – sales were up 162 per cent to 86,291 for the first 11 months of last year according to Which? But that is still a minute proportion of the 32.9 million cars registered in the UK. They amount according to the NAO to eight per cent of new car sales.

The NAO report produces some damning figures on the environmental impact of all this. The result has been pathetic – just a 1 per cent cut in carbon emissions in the ten years since subsidies for green cars were started. Carbon emissions actually rose between 2016 and 2019 as people went for more sporty vehicles and SUVs and road traffic increased. Hardly a good omen.

Massive divide between those with drives and those who are drive less

But there is also another story which suggests that the ” electric car ” will be the new divide between the rich, the middle class and the young and poor. To get best value from an electric car you need a home charger. If you have a big drive – no problem and you can even get a government greant of £350 to install one.

But one third of home owners and tenants live not in semi detached and detached homes but in terraced houses and flats. There is nowhere to install a charger on their property – they will have to rely on public charging in the street.

And the scheme to install public chargers in the streets has been a miserable failure. The NAO reveal that:

“By the end of March 2020, government funding had contributed towards the installation of 133,336 home charging points;8,578 workplace charging points; and 690 on-street charging points.”

This pathetic last figure for on street charging has partly been caused by the government itself – according to the NAO claiming the money from the ministry is so complicated that local councils have partly given up – the £8.5m budget for this has been underused by 32 per cent over the last three years.

Private companies have fared better according to the Which? report there were 20,823 publicly accessible charging points in 13,185 locations by mid December last year.

Damning findings from Which? on costs

There are some damning findings from Which? which heighten the divide even further. Yes you can save money on fuel bills by going electric but only if you have your own charger. “ If you don’t have regular access to private charging facilities it could cost you more to run overall than a full hybrid model or even a conventional petrol or diesel car.”

And worse if you have hybrid model Which? says don’t trust the fuel economy figures from the manufacturers.“Our own fuel economy tests show that real-world costs are on average an astronomical 252 per cent more expensive than manufacturer claims, across all the models we tested.”

Seat Mii electric car – £409 extra a year from public charging.

And there is more for the poorer car owner with no access to their own charger.

” The cost of fully charging the average electric vehicle is 97 per cent more expensive than the average UK fixed-price home energy tariff, not including special rates or incentives aimed at electric car owners” And it is big money Which? estimates it would add £409 to annual fuel costs for a tiny city car such as the Seat Mii electric or around £653 for a full sized SUV such as the Mercedes EQC.

All this suggests that the government is going to need a big rethink to get to its target as both the NAO and the Commons Public Accounts Committee chair agree.

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts says:

“Government has made some headway in promoting electric cars. But they are still not an affordable or practical option for most people.

The vast majority of charging points are for private off-street parking. Not everyone has a driveway to charge their car. And reducing emissions shouldn’t be a luxury reserved for the middle classes.

This can’t be a pie in the sky ambition – government must urgently develop a real plan if it wants electric cars to comprise 100% of new sales by 2035.”

I agree – otherwise it will just be another example of government hype.

Another fine mess: MPs slam £425m school food voucher scheme as firm walks off with the profits

The Department for Education promoting the Edenred scheme

Company predicted “successful business performance” on the back of feeding poverty stricken children

The spectre of poor children going hungry during the Covid 19 crisis is something the government have had to be put under pressure to remedy – notably by Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer.

But now it has emerged that even when the government finally did the right thing – they managed to make a mess of it. The initial scheme was poorly implemented and the supervision by the Department for Education (DfE) of the private company, Edenred UK Ltd, was lamentable.

Naive civil servants thought they were getting a bargain when the company told them that they get the supermarket vouchers for them at their face value without it costing them a penny more. What they hadn’t realised was that the company could get a huge discount from supermarkets by bulk buying and pocket the difference themselves. And on an initial contract worth £77m later increased five fold to £425m that’s a lot of cash.

Whitehall ” surprisingly unconcerned” about Edenred making big profits out of taxpayers’ money

The report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee expresses dismay that the ministry even now seemed ” surprisingly unconcerned” about the profits made out of our money and has hit back at the MPs for suggesting it – backing the company which is also trying to deny it. A wonderful example of how the Johnson government is prepared to be shamed faced about making money out of Covid 19 and the plight of poor children.

There were serious problems in the early weeks of the scheme” and “unacceptable delays in Edenred processing orders from schools and getting vouchers to families,” the report reveals..

Those words cover up the distressing evidence given by individual schools to MPs.

School staff had to work in the middle of the night to get Edenred’s vouchers

Ms Andrea Howard ,School Business Manager at Truro & Penwith Academy Trust at the time of using Edenred, wrote to Mps, saying she was ” subjected to extreme levels of stress.”

“From the onset, the portal was not fit for purpose, initially it continually crashed and when the portal was first upgraded, there was a very long wait to access the site, this wait was sometimes more than two hours.  “For several nights in a row, I and many other school business manager colleagues took to waking up in the middle of the night to attempt to upload our spreadsheets, and site traffic was better in the early hours of the morning.  However, the fact that there was still traffic at these times is evidence of the desperation of school staff to be able to provide their families with vouchers.”

“Once parents received their vouchers, we had reports from the majority that they were not able to access the platform to redeem them.  It must be recognised that many of these families have limited access to the internet and tried to redeem the vouchers through their phones using their limited mobile data. 

 ” Additionally, we are located in a rural part of Cornwall with no nearby supermarkets, many of our families do not have access to their own transport and there is a very limited bus service, however the vouchers were only able to be used in large supermarket chains and not local shops such as co-op (initially) and Spar. “

Gavin Williamson, education secretary

Gavin Williamson made ” untrue statements”- headteacher

Raphael Moss, Headteacher, Elsley Primary School, Wembley, told MPs:” Due to the untrue statements made by the Secretary of State [Gavin Williamson] and DfE, their lack of acceptance of many of the issues, or the downplaying of the impact, I feel compelled to submit evidence for what amounts to gross negligence. As a result of the delays to providing vouchers, our own school set up a food bank, relying on donations from staff and the public, to ensure that children did not go hungry. “

“A major flaw in the scheme was that there was a huge incentive for schools to use the Edenred scheme rather than use a local alternative. A school’s own scheme would require laying out the cost of it it ourselves, with DfE guidance placing several limitations on which schools could claim and maximum amounts that could be claimed.

“The Edenred voucher amount of £15 was also in excess of the usual funding of £11.50 which also acted as an incentive to use the Edenred scheme. The public messages implied that schools had a choice to use their own scheme but without mentioning the limitations on schools reclaiming costs.”

Profits of £10.7 million

Taking this evidence it is quite clear that the scheme was aimed ( with Whitehall connivance) as much as benefitting Edenred as the poor hungry children. No wonder after a National Audit Office investigation and a critical report by MPs they have decided to return one per cent of the cost of the contract.

Their latest accounts – they are a subsidiary of a French firm – show they made profits of over £10.7 million.

Their annual report says they were ” honoured ” to get the food voucher contract which” will enable a successful business performance in 2020.”

You bet it did. The pay rise for their highest paid director last year was £136,000 – it went up from £235,000 to £371,000. That pays for a lot of food vouchers – more likely in caviar and French champagne than baked beans and spaghetti.

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.

How rip off Rishi manipulated National Savings punters only to dump on them when it suited him

Rip of Rishi Sunak – the manipulative chancellor

In November I wrote a blog castigating Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, for his introduction of “rip off ” rates for safe savers – many of them pensioners – who have National Savings accounts.

As I said at the time; ” Effectively Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, is making sure that millions of savers and those who have a flutter on the Premium Bonds subsidise the government’s multi billion pay outs by losing money every year they invest.”

Now thanks to the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee – which took up the issue of the low rates -and also poor customer service, record levels of complaints and long waits hanging on their phone lines – his whole dastardly plot has been exposed.

Mel Stride MP pic credit: gov.uk

Mel Stride, Conservative chair of the committee, decided to write to Ian Ackerley, Chief Executive of National Savings and Investments, demanding an explanation.

Today the committee has published his reply with a tough comment from Mr Stride about what happened.

” damage may have been done to NS&I’s reputation”

He said: “An exodus of savers from NS&I when it cut interest rates in November was foreseeable and so it is disappointing that the average time to answer a customer’s call was 19 minutes that month.

I would like to thank Mr Ackerley for his frank response, but the damage that may have been done to NS&I’s reputation over the last few months is worrying.

“NS&I has a big role to play in helping the Government fund the costs of the coronavirus recovery scheme and it will need to work hard to win back customers.”

But what is really interesting is Mr Ackerley’s explanation of how these changes in interest rates came about.

Ministers took decision not to cut interest rates

After Rishi Sunak became chancellor and pandemic took hold he decided to deliberately to attract savers to get the government out of a spending hole.

As National Savings says:

“In March 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, HM Treasury asked NS&I to provide proposals for how NS&I could quickly provide additional funding beyond the £6 billion target to support the Government’s increased borrowing requirement. …A proposal was made to Ministers to reverse the decision to implement interest rate reductions to NS&I’s variable rate products that were announced in February (before the Covid-19 pandemic had taken hold) and which were due to come into effect on 1 May 2020. “

“Ministers made the decision to proceed with this plan and on 1 May, only interest rate reductions on NS&I’s fixed term products came into effect. Variable rate product interest rates were left unchanged.”

By September it had been too successful. ” There was unexpectedly more cash in the savings market and much of this money came to NS&I – £38.3 billion in net inflows from March to September 2020 – this was a greater level of Net Financing than in the previous three years combined.”

Plan to drive savers away

So a decision was then made deliberately to drive savers away by introducing rock bottom rates because he no longer needed it.

National Savings said: “Based on previous patterns, we expected that a proportion of customers would withdraw their money. However, as many were newer customers who had come to NS&I when we were offering ‘best buy’ rates, the scale of the outflows and the timing of customers cashing in their holdings happened earlier than expected.
“A combination of factors has impacted our customer service operations which has been stressful for some customers and staff. We did not intend for this to happen but we do not believe that the situation could have been predicted.”

What happened was a rise in complaints, people waiting nearly 20 minutes on the phone to contact them and general disatisfaction with the service.

What is not said though is that the government will not want people to continue saving when the pandemic is over. They will need to spend to revive the economy. What better way to empty savings accounts than to make them so unattractive that people lose money keeping cash there.

So the real story is that this government is deliberately manipulating punters to suit its own interests -putting money away when they can’t spend it during the pandemic – and forcing them to spend it when the pandemic is over. They must take the average saver to be a fool.

Brexit: How Parliament abdicated its role to scrutinise the biggest change in UK life for 50 years

Parliament: Abdicating scrutiny

The most potent slogan of the Vote Leave campaign was the promise that Brexit meant that the country could ” take back control” and Parliament would be sovereign and we will be governed by our own laws.

Today Parliament abdicated its role to take back control of scrutinising the Brexit deal by kowtowing to a manipulative government which left little time to examine the Treaty before it had to come into effect.

Boris Johnson opening the debate with Rishi Sunak looking on Pic Credit: @UK Parliament _jessica Taylor

A huge bill which will change Britain’s relationship with our nearest neighbours, end the freedom of British people to work and study in Europe, and introduce a raft of bureaucratic red tape to do business with Europe while avoiding tariffs and quotas, will be debated in just half a day. The bill will have no clause by clause examination because there will be no time in the Commons to do this. It will be just rubber stamped. And MPs will have just four minutes – later reduced to three – each to comment.

Keir Starmer backing the “thin deal rather than no deal” with Opposition chief whip Nick Brown

Similarly the House of Lords will not have time to scrutinise the bill either and though 145 peers have said they want to comment the new bill – they have precisely three minutes each to do so. The House of Lords Constitution Committee will scrutinise the detail of the bill after it has become law – even though the government does not want this to happen. The government in its explanatory memorandum says the bill is not suitable for pre legislation scrutiny. But Baroness Taylor, who chairs the Lords Constitution Committee, points out that the means the government uses to implement the treaty are subject to scrutiny – and she indicated that many of the Commission powers had been transferred to ministers not Parliament.

Ian Blackford, Scottish National Party leader, who opposed the deal and whose party voted against of it.

By midnight tonight the Royal Assent will be given. As the Hansard Society says: “Parliament’s role around the end of the Brexit transition and conclusion of the EU future relationship treaty is a constitutional failure to properly scrutinise the executive and the law.”

It rightly says the proceedings amount to a farce. Compare it with the European Parliament – which Brexiteers say amount to bureaucratic dictators. They declined to rush through a debate approving the deal until they could properly consider it. Instead they rely on a temporary agreement to allow trade to continue and will set aside much more time to debate it than the UK Parliament. They have two months to do this.

The reason why this is important is if there are defects in the legislation that will show up later and end up discrediting the issue even for Brexiteers. Much better to get the legislation right – and Parliamentary scrutiny is the best way to do this. Particularly as the deal runs to 1200 pages and you have to check the bill with the Treaty and refer to other legislation. We have now thrown away that chance.

In a way this is a microcosm of the way Boris Johnson and his Cabinet colleagues want to govern this country. They do not want scrutiny and want “to take back control” for themselves and not for Parliament or the people. They want to use Parliament and the people for their own agenda. Today was a bad day for Parliament and democracy.

Liz Truss’s thin initiative on equality: Political sloganizing without substance

Liz Truss international trade secretary

We are now getting used to Boris Johnson’s blustering empty slogans on current problems – whether it’s Covid 19 or Brexit. What I hadn’t realised until today it is obviously standard Cabinet speak for this government – as Liz Truss, the international trade secretary and women and equalities minister, has just done the same.

Her much trailed speech at the Centre for Policy Studies was full of crowd pleasing right wing jibes bashing the Left and talking of so called unrepresentative groups campaigning for black and ethnic minorities, gays and women but getting nowhere.

But when it came to what she wanted to offer it was pretty thin gruel. She is moving the Equalities Hub from London to the North and asking the Social Mobility Commission to research the geographical disparities across the country. Wow!

motherhood and apple pie

And some of the speech read – forgive me for being sexist – like ” motherhood and apple pie”.

“Now is the time to root the equality debate in the real concerns people face, delivering quality housing, cutting commute times, improving public transport, ending discrimination in our offices, factories and shop floors, and improving our schools so every child has the same chances in life,” she opined.

Politicians have been spouting these platitudes for decades. No one is going to stand on a platform of let’s build a new generation of slums, slash public transport and cut school budgets – even if the result of some policies -under Tory governments- has been to do this.

The truth is we already know what has happened to the North and the South West without any more research. I know having looked at life expectancy figures that people in posh Kensington live much longer than those in Blackpool. I have been to Sunderland and Skelmersdale and seen the narrow life chances of people who live there. And by the way if the Tories are so worried about the North- why did both places miss out on Robert Jenrick’s largesse in his town fund scheme- in favour of Cheadle and Southport ( both Tory marginal seats unlike the former two).

Rugged individualism

It is what she going to do about this that matters. Her solution seems to be that rugged individualism will solve the lot and miraculously lift the masses out of years of deprivation. Yet to have a big impact it has to be a big partnership involving local councils, communities and diverse interest groups. She seems to suggest that one compartmentalises equality -looking at social and economic class – and ignoring whether they are black, gay, women or white working class males. In a bizarre sort of way her analysis is almost Marxist – though she would be a million miles away from his solution.

She also doesn’t seem to know that she already possesses the power to do this under the Equality Act.

One reaction from Nell Andrew, GMB National Equality and Inclusion Officer ( no doubt one of those Lefties she doesn’t like) was:

“If Liz Truss is serious in her ‘new fight for fairness’, she could start by enacting Section 1 of the Equality Act that was passed in Parliament 10 years ago and which successive Tory administrations have refused to act on. This would force public institutions to adopt effective polices to reduce the inequalities that result from class or socio-economic barriers.  

“A drastic move away from recognising peoples lived experience, ignoring qualitive evidence, is a dangerous use of smoke and mirrors to attack equality and human rights legislation.  

“All major equality and employment laws came about because of workers and communities organising around issues like racism, sexism and homophobia; fighting for more equal rights for everyone. “

Dr Meghan Campbell from the Oxford Human Rights Hub

fracturing equality

Dr Meghan Campbell, Deputy-Director of the Oxford Human Rights Hub, and an expert on the UN  Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,(CEDAW) put it this way:

“Today’s statement appears to fracture equality between identity characteristics (race, gender etc) and socio-economic equality. The water-tight division between different types of equality is both misleading and highly strained. There are complex interactions between race, gender, disability, migration status, geography, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and poverty. Historically marginalised groups have higher rates of poverty and political and social exclusion. “

“While there are some encouraging aspects focusing in on geographic equality and poverty, but these should not be pitted against race or gender equality as equality is not a zero-sum game.

” Poverty cannot be fully addressed without transforming the institutions and norms that perpetuate poverty against women and people of colour. The statement seems to be moving back to a very individualised vision of equality that ignores how larger structures, norms and institutions can trap people into disadvantage. “

So I am not impressed. If I am very cynical just a week ago she as equalities minister got advance warning that the UN CEDAW committee in Geneva has decided to seek the UK’s response on discrimination in relation to women as the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the Back To 60 pension discrimination case. I wonder if this among other matters prompted her rushed public response.