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 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