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





Lansley’s unhealthy double whammy: What you won’t know or find out about the NHS

Andrew Lansley's unhealthy changes. Pic courtesy:www.bexleymonitoringgroup.co.uk

Update:Department of Health has replied to this blog defending their position on Freedom of Information and cutting statistics – see comments.

While battle rages over the government’s  controversial reforms of the NHS, the Department of Health has sneaked out two toxic  changes that could  seriously damage your health by promoting ignorance and restricting your rights as a citizen.

The two changes appear to be unconnected  but are extremely helpful to new private providers of  NHS medical services. One will limit information the private firms  have to provide under the Freedom of Information Act to patients and relatives, the other will help them by abolishing the collection of health statistics on the services they provide and  the quality of  staff they employ.

The first has been revealed by the authoritative Campaign for Freedom of Information who are rightly demanding that Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, amends the law so patients can be protected. See their letter at   http://bit.ly/q35AsQ .                   .

This is incredibly serious as this example  by their director Maurice Frankel  shows here.

“Suppose there is concern about the use of potentially contaminated medical supplies by hospitals. For an NHS hospital, the FOI Act could be used to obtain details of stocks of the product, the number of doses administered, the numbers of affected patients, the quality control measures in place, correspondence with suppliers, minutes of meetings at which the problem was discussed and information showing what measures were considered, what action was taken, how promptly and with what results.
This level of information would clearly not be available in relation to independent providers treating NHS patients. This would represent a major loss of existing information rights.”

The second comes from a very convoluted consultation exercise launched the day after the August bank holiday and trumpeted by Anne Milton, the public health minister, as a drive against ” red tape”.

This proposes to slash the collection of statistics by the Department of Health by 25 per cent in a rather uneven and unclear way. But it is clear that the aim is to ” minimise the burden” on the NHS and in particular the new private providers.

Half the statistics collected on the NHS workforce – which are used to improve staff training and forecast the need for skilled staff – are to be dropped. The consultation document says: “This will be of significance for non-NHS providers of NHS services as it will determine the minimum workforce information they would be required to provide.”

And also being reduced are the statistics on the very sensitive political area of waiting times, targets for treatments and capacity of hospitals. The paper says: “the content and frequency.. should remain under review so that the right information is provided by the NHS at a sensible frequency and in so doing the burden to the NHS is minimised.”

Collection of  statistics giving the national picture on mental health are being abolished and the collection of statistics on patient safety look like being hived off to a private firm.

The one area that is being improved is cancer statistic collection which seems to be tied to a pledge by David Cameron.

What is particularly disturbing is that despite the document running to 55 pages at no point is a definitive list published of what is being scrapped. See document if you can bear to here:http://bit.ly/npcHmC .

Frankly Andrew Lansley should not be allowed to get away with either of these moves. The Department needs to change its position on the former and come clean on the latter. I suggest that you make your views known to Mr Lansley at his private office at the Department of Health the email address is  mb-sofs@dh.gsi.gov.uk. If  Zetter’s Parliamentary Companion is right his direct e-mail at andrew.lansley@dh.gsi.gov.uk.

Misdiagnosis,bad prognosis then last minute brilliance: my treatment by the NHS

preparing to go under the knife(not my operation)

Being treated by the NHS is like riding a rollercoaster or watching England play in the World Cup ( even as a non football fanatic).

One minute you cannot believe professionals can make such errors, the next you can’t quite believe how they brilliantly they got their act together.

I had the misfortune to trip over a rock on a remote headland path on the Isles of Scilly – falling flat on my face with my arm outstretched skidding across another rock. I was unable to get up unaided.

 I should have known not to do this except on Tuesdays between 2.0 pm and 4.0pm – the only time there are X ray facilities on these  islands some 30 miles from the Cornish mainland. I was later to find that while Scilly has  brilliant first aiders and paramedics who use a jet ambulance boat, its cottage hospital at St. Mary’s is a one man and a dog operation.

And unfortunately for me this was a Thursday afternoon- so no x ray without calling in an air ambulance to Penzance. I was diagnosed as to have nothing wrong with me except  sprained and badly bruised muscles and sent home with Paracetamol and Ibuprofen.

For the rest of our holiday we spent quietly on Tresco. Only after visiting my GP in Berkhamsted nearly a week later and being sent off to casaulty at Watford General Hospital, did I find I had fractured my shoulder in three places. But never mind, the prognosis was that the bones would heal by themselves. I would be sent to the fracture clinic at Watford to arrange physio.

A week later and seen by orthopaedic doctors at the clinic, it suddenly emerged that I needed an operation to restore my shoulder and upper arm to full mobility. And worse still there was only a week left to do  it, because my bones were well on the way to trying to heal themselves  in the wrong position.

Here despite a horrendous reputation trying to run a busy overstretched hospital on a  shoestring (West Herts having closed down our nearest  a&e hospital Hemel Hempstead), fingers were (metaphorically) pulled out.

Within two hours, I had a CT scan, bloods and swabs taken in case I was carrying MRSA without knowing it. Within 24 hours the hospital found me an orthopaedic surgeon, South African Andrew Irwin, who specialises in smashed shoulders and upper arms.

They had a problem- no bed. A hospital administrator -Jane Ward- came to the rescue ( remember those people politicians despise because they don’t  do front line care) and three hours before I was due to come in-had found one.

My 44 hr stay on Flaunden  general surgery ward was a minor miracle -with almost every NHS cliche in the book. The surgeon turned out to be the typical no bedside manner type – in the one minute consultation- it was simply  “you have a smashed shoulder. We’ll fix it.” The nursing care-despite staff shortages- was superb with one staffer, Trish, doing a double night shift and staying on an extra hour to  complete unfinished tasks. And while the operation took six hours -described as ” a tricky one” by a junior surgeon the next day, I actually did feel safe before and afterwards.

Slight shock at being turfed out with one hour’s notice the next day- but I suspect that with one or two patients with undiagnosed infections surrounding me, it was for my own good. Yet they managed to get me to see a phsyiotherapist, get a final X ray ( when I discovered I have a metal plate and a long pin in my shoulder), get some drugs and talk to a pain nurse and after a strong representations from my anxious wife, arrange for patient transport home.

The experience suggests -despite Labour’s spending boom –  an NHS much on the edge trying to provide best patient outcomes. My shoulder is starting to recover. All I can say is that if David Cameron or Nick Clegg – start thinking of squeezing the NHS in any way- I shall use it to thump them when I meet in the House of Commons as part of my job.