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/

Parliamentary Ombudsman: Don’t contact us, we’ll contact you

Sir Rob Behrens, Parliamentary Ombudsman

Sir Robert Behrens, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. has finally come clean publicly that it cannot cope with handling complaints and has issued a public statement.

This followed a blog I wrote earlier revealing that the Ombudsman had faced fresh curbs on its budget from the Treasury. Instead of a new three year budget to help improve services it has only been given one year of funding.

But it chose not to announce that publicly and instead sent a letter to William Wragg, the Tory chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, hiding it a Parliamentary correspondence file.

In the letter Sir Robert says “We will postpone the launch of PHSO’s new three-year strategy until we can secure the three-year funding settlement necessary to deliver it. Instead, we will use 2021-22 as a bridging year to lay the foundations for the new strategy and focus on addressing the significant operational challenges facing PHSO’s service.”

Several months of delays

Now the Ombudsman has stuck a long statement on its site which reads:

“Our service remains open but given the unprecedented situation you may experience delays of several months when you bring a complaint to us. We are very sorry about the delay and will do our best to support you through these uncertain times. We will focus on helping the most vulnerable as a priority. 

To help us work through the complaints we are receiving, please do not submit a complaint to us if it is about:

•    delays with complaint responses 
•    matters which are likely to resolve themselves within the next few weeks/months
•    delays in service delivery which are non-critical and are the result of an organisation coping with COVID-19.

Please use our complaint checker below to make sure your complaint is ready for us to look at.

The pressures currently faced by the NHS may mean that it is not possible for us to progress some health complaints at this time. Your caseworker will keep you informed of any delays with your case.

For more information read our latest Coronavirus update.

Please continue to check our website or follow us on Twitter for further updates. ”

still not entirely transparent

The statement is still not entirely transparent as it blames Covid 19 entirely for the problem when it is also being hit by the postponement of its budget settlement. The Ombudsman also caused consternation among some people awaiting the result of their complaints by taking down the site on Saturday and Sunday morning without any explanation. Most banks and building societies put up a notice saying a site would not be available because they are working on it. Not so the uncommunicative Ombudsman.

This led one of my readers, Darren Watts, to contact me because he thought the Ombudsman had closed down the website. He is one of a large number of people awaiting the result of a complaint. I am extremely grateful for him letting me know and also grateful that the service was restored. I have to add I am not very impressed to say the least.

Will your complaint get heard as the Government forces the Parliamentary Ombudsman to curb its service?

Rishi Sunak: Postponing the cash to improve the Ombudsman service

The Parliamentary Ombudsman has already – as I wrote in an earlier blog – faced a critical report from MPs on the way it handles some of its work.

And Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, has also turned down any prospect of new legislation to modernise the service by combining its work with the local government and social care ombudsman.

Not content with that, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has now postponed a three year funding programme which would have allowed it to introduce changes to improve matters.

Instead The Treasury has decided to give it just one year’s worth of funding and instructed it to concentrate on handling complaints arising out of Covid 19 pushing aside other grievances..

Details of this latest bad news has not been put out in any press release by the Ombudsman but has been hidden away in the correspondence section of the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committtee.

A letter from Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, to William Wragg, the Tory chair of the committee, reveals the not very bright future for people wanting to take the NHS to the Ombudsman or for the 1950s born women hoping for compensation for maladministration over the six year rise in the date they could claim their pension.

In the letter Mr Behrens says “We will postpone the launch of PHSO’s new three-year strategy until we can secure the three-year funding settlement necessary to deliver it. Instead, we will use 2021-22 as a bridging year to lay the foundations for the new strategy and focus on addressing the significant operational challenges facing PHSO’s service.”

Severely affected by Covid – 19

He goes on to describe what next financial year will be like:

“PHSO’s service has been severely affected by the ongoing COVID-19 situation in a number of ways, from the impact of school closures on the availability of staff, to pressures on the NHS that mean services are taking longer to respond to PHSO’s requests for information.
“As a result, PHSO is closing substantially fewer cases than usual and, in turn, this means a growing number of complainants are waiting for their case to be allocated to a caseworker.
“Although we have started to recruit some more caseworkers, it takes a minimum of six months to train new staff and even with additional caseworkers, it is clear that complainants will face increasingly long wait times unless we take further action.”

Delaying revealing the size of the complaints waiting list

I asked the Ombudsman to give me details of how many cases they were and how long they were taking. I also asked about the size of the waiting list. Simple questions enough if they are on top of the job. Instead they have decided to turn it into a Freedom of Information request which will give them a month or two to reply. I will report back when I have the figures.

In the meantime the letter says: “This means we will prioritise the quality and productivity of PHSO’s core complaints-handling service. We will also use 2021-22 to carry out preliminary work to support the new three-year strategy, such as improvements to some of PHSO’s core systems and processes, and highlighting
opportunities for Parliament to make essential improvements to PHSO’s legal framework, such as removing the MP filter.” The latter point is that all complaints have to go through MPs at the moment.

The whole situation is not good at all. But I am not surprised that the government is not keen on funding or modernising the service. A more efficient service will bring to light injustices – which means a bad press for government services – and ministers don’t like bad publicity. Far better to deprive the Ombudsman of cash and keep the announcement hidden in the correspondence column of a committee.

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.

Unison election: Now Electoral Reform Services on trial

simon-hearn

Simon Hearn : deputy chief executive of Electoral Reform Services faced tough cross questioning of his role supervising Dave Prentis’s election. Pic credit: ERS

Electoral Reform Services is considered the gold standard in achieving fair and free elections.

Yesterday that image slipped when  deputy chief executive Simon Hearn was cross questioned about his role in supervising the  2015 election of   general secretary Dave Prentis to Britain’s biggest public sector union,Unison. The union paid ERS almost £1m of members money to safeguard fair play.

Simon supervised the first free elections after the fall of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – see his profile on the ERS website hereYesterday at a hearing in London he was challenged by both JohnBurgess’s legal representative,Yunus Bakhsh, and Heather Wakefield’s barrister,Ms Ijeoma Omambala , for not supervising Unison’s election to  perhaps the same standards.

Both put to him a catalogue of allegations adding up to the point that he seemed to take Unison’s word than properly investigated whether the complaints were valid himself. He vigorously denied this saying he had independently investigated  them and not been swayed by top officials from the union.

All the candidates – Heather Wakefield, John Burgess and Roger Bannister – standing against Dave Prentis – and complainant Jon Rogers have lodged complaints about the way officials are alleged to have misused resources to promote Dave Prentis to retain his job.

But yesterday at the hearing – as well as top union officials being  cross examined – the ERS came in for a lot of criticism.

Among the points raised were:

Why did he not check the  Unison rulebook  after Liane Venner , both  on  ” Team Dave ” campaign for Dave Prentis and the official organising the election, had given him the wrong information  about who could take decisions re the election?

Why had he only investigated nine branches  to check whether there had been breaches of the rules when the union had 953? He said he had investigated more but no longer had the information.

Why hadn’t he followed up the breaches in the Greater London area – where he admitted the union tape had revealed there was a breach of the rules at a meeting to discuss how to promote Dave Prentis to see of there was ” systematic malpractice” elswhere ? He said he hadn’t had enough complaints to do this.

He was also quizzed about the Private Eye article about passing all the complaints to the union without investigating him which the magazine said amounted to ” Team Dave investigating Team Dave.”. He insisted he was just passing the information over to officials, who, in his view, behaved properly, to verify the complaints.

Probably the most damning point was following the inquiry by  Unison official Roger McKenzie into  the breach of union rules at the Greater London meeting which led to the suspension – now lifted – of one official, Linda Perks, when he had been told that more officials were involved.

He suspended his inquiry while the disciplinary inquiry took place but did not appear to have followed up after the result.

The union’s barrister, Mr Antony White QC, did not challenge any of these assertions. He concentrated on getting Mr Hearn to state from his final report on the election’s conclusions to point out that whatever had happened it made no difference to the result – which saw Dave Prentis win comfortably.

An interesting observation – I will refrain from commenting  until the  case is concluded..