Gove kicks reform of the Parliamentary Ombudsman service into the long grass

Official portrait of Chloe Smith MP and Cabinet Office minister for the constitution and devolution

Government dumps on Parliamentary Ombudsman as waiting list of cases forecast to rise to 4000

The government has thrown out any proposals to reform the overburdened Parliamentary Ombudsman service until after the next General Election in 2024.

A reply from Chloe Smith, junior Cabinet Office minister, to MPs on the Commons Public Administration Committee on their report into the Parliamentary Ombudsman reveals that reforms far from being delayed a year will not take place until 2025.

She writes:” The Government appreciates the desire of PACAC to modernise Ombudsman standards and agrees that this is an important matter. As outlined by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster[ Michael Gove] in September 2020, the current pressures on the Government and the parliamentary timetable mean the 2016 Bill has not progressed and there are no plans to reform the Ombudsman system up to and including 2023–24. We will nonetheless carefully consider the committee’s findings and any future opportunities.”

The decision to delay any improvements to the service come at a time when there are 2663 cases waiting to be allocated and long delays for people awaiting to hear the result of their cases.

At the same time minutes of a board meeting at the Ombudsman’s office on February 18 and only just published reveals that the waiting list for cases to be allocated is forecast to rise to 4000. This is entirely due to complaInts arising from relatives of Covid 19 victims.

The report said: “It was proposed that, to allow the organisation to focus on complaints raising more serious issues, it would not routinely progress health complaints where the impact of the claimed injustice is relatively limited. This would apply to complaints determined to be at level 1 and level 2 of our Severity of Injustice scale. This is in line with other Ombudsman organisations.”

Relatives of Covid 19 victims not likely to get their complaint investigated

This is bad news for relatives of Covid 19 victims who are already been denied justice by Boris Johnson choosing to delay a Covid-19 public inquiry. It also raises the question how the Ombudsman would know a complaint was a serious problem until he had investigated it.

Sir Rob Behrens Parliamentary Ombudsman

Sir Robert Behrens, Parliamentary Ombudsman, in his reply to the committee suggests he might try and persuade Matt Hancock, the health secretary, to allow some changes to the Ombudsman’s powers in forthcoming legislation to reform the NHS.

He writes: “The forthcoming NHS legislation could also grant PHSO ‘own initiative’ powers to look at an NHS-related issue where someone would struggle to bring a complaint or where there is a fear that complaining to the Ombudsman might bring about personal repercussions in terms of the NHS care received. For example, if someone is a long-term inpatient with learning disabilities, they or their family may be reluctant to complain formally for fear that it would adversely affect that person’s care.
“PHSO would welcome the Committee’s support for including these measures in the legislation that will follow the NHS Integration and Innovation White Paper. We would also welcome similar support for removing the out-dated MP filter and making other improvements in our Parliamentary jurisdiction when appropriate legislative opportunities arise.”

So the Ombudsman is left clutching at straws to get any reform at all. The public are left with a lousy service and the prospect of complaints being dumped because the Ombudsman will not have the resources to cope.

My thanks to a couple of readers for alerting me to the board meeting and the government’s reply. It is nice to know people are keeping an eye on this

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/

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.

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.

Exclusive: Amber Rudd faces new challenge over maladministration of the raising of pension age from 50s Women

amber rudd

Amber Rudd- the new work and pensions secretary and MP for Hastings

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

Two supporters of the BackTo60 campaign have got professional legal support to challenge the government for maladministration over the failure to notify them over the raising of the pension age.

The fresh challenge is in addition to the hearing next Friday at the High court to decide whether BackTo60 can challenge the government through a judicial review.

Pensions Litigation lawyer Mr Ivan Walker (Principal of Walkers Solicitors based in Kent) has agreed to advise Fran Martin and Ros Pain-Tolin  who, are two of the lead cases of 1950s Women. They have got to the final stage of presenting their case to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

Mr Walker recently represented the members of the Lloyds Bank pension schemes in a landmark High Court claim regarding sex discrimination in the system for contracting out of the State Earnings-related Pension Scheme.

The move is significant because professional legal advice is essential in bringing such a  case. The women are launching a crowd funding appeal  to help finance the move.

The link is here. Go onto the crowdfunder site here:

https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/search/projects?filter%5Bc%5D=&filter%5Bt%5D=pending&filter%5Bs%5D=

Search live projects and put in 50swomen and then you will get to the site. For some reason this direct link does not work

https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/maladministration–legal-advice-for-1950swomen

Both women have faced enormous and heart rending struggles to cope since the government pushed back the right to claim a pension from 60 to 65 and it is going up to 66 by 2020. Their struggle is typical of many others who have commented on this blog and have been left with virtually nothing to live on.

Fran Martin told me :

“I received a letter in 2013 from DWP – which indicated that I had a 6 yr hike added to my SP age – This was received 2 years before my 60th birthday in 2015. I was totally shocked and still am.

“I have gone from an optimistic cheerful forward thinking person to a virtual recluse with all the incumbent stresses and strains that this places on other family members. Health has deteriorated too, with high blood pressure, diabetes and anxiety being I feel part and parcel of the result of being misled at what is a vulnerable time in anyone’s life..”

Sleepless nights have become the new norm and even whilst now prescribed sleeping tablets I can still be wide awake at 4 or 5am with worry for a very bleak future if even that exists, I’m not convinced it does.”

She became redundant in 2015 and then saw her plans for a happy retirement ruined.

” I had purchased a retirement cottage in 2008 in Aberdeenshire completely unaware of any state pension Legislation. and which DWP treated as capital – Forced in Dec 2015 to put the cottage up for sale – but with no work and no one coming into Aberdeen to rent, to date the cottage is still on the market. and have costs for the upkeep of same and the flat that I live in Aberdeen.

” I am ineligible for any benefits as the DWP class the cottage as capital. I was also forced to draw down a small private pension in 2015 at the worst possible times for annuities, and use this and small savings to eek out a bleak existence – Dependant to on a mother in her mid 80’s which quite frankly I never thought I would have to be and obviously places stress and worry on her too.”

Ros told me: “I always expected my State Pension to be at 60 in 2015. I never received a letter. ICE  ( who handle pension complaints)say that one was ‘probably’ sent in Feb 2012, but they did not keep any ‘case specific’ records so cannot confirm.”

“I only have a small works pension that I had taken early. I also a degenerative back condition which causes me pain most days and I  suffer from Asthma.

I really don’t know how I would manage at all, if I didn’t have my husband and his Pension to rely on as well. He is now 70 with his own health issues. My Mother almost 95 has also given financial support over the last few years.”

Both women are determined to fight the system so Amber Rudd in her new role  as work and pensions secretary better look out as a storm is gathering not only from them but from millions of other people who feel they have been robbed of their state pension when they should have had it.