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.