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Independent study calls for Ombudsman to have greater powers

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman could provide justice for more people if it had the power to launch investigations without the need for a formal complaint, according to an independent review published yesterday.

The review led by the Ombudsman for the Republic of Ireland and President of the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI), Peter Tyndall, was commissioned by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to independently assess its value for money.  

The study found that the Ombudsman provides an important service that goes beyond investigating complaints and that, as a result of strong leadership and new ways of working, offers good value for money for taxpayers. This includes providing an important advice service to thousands of people who contact the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman every year, helping them to navigate complex complaints systems, and producing insight reports which have helped to save lives in the NHS.  

Other strengths included the Ombudsman’s recent openness to feedback, quality control processes and being sector leaders in staff training and development, all of which have led to organisation-wide improvements.  

But the peer review noted that the Ombudsman service lacks important powers that would significantly enhance the service it offers and bring it in line with ombudsmen in Northern Ireland and many countries in Europe.  

‘Own initiative’ powers, where an Ombudsman launches an investigation without receiving a written complaint, could potentially provide justice for more people while also driving important public service improvements and financial savings.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Rob Behrens yesterday said:

‘I’m pleased that this independent peer review has recognised that our new ways of working have put us on the right footing to become an exemplary Ombudsman service. We still have much work to do, particularly in IT, which we are addressing to ensure our staff work more efficiently and provide a better service.

Unlike other UK and international Ombudsman services, we do not have the power to look into public service failings unless a formal complaint has been made. This is a significant disservice to the public as mistakes are left unquestioned, public organisations are left unaccountable and people are not getting the justice they deserve.’

The Chair of the panel Peter Tyndall, Ombudsman for the Republic of Ireland and President of the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI), added:

‘As a result of strong leadership and the hard work of staff, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has made significant reforms over the past two years to successfully transform their service, including becoming sector leaders in training.

We concluded that they offer good value for money, particularly given the extent of their advice and insight work and their excellent work on complaint assessments and investigations.

However, they are severely restricted in what they can achieve to improve public services as they do not have powers to investigate without a formal complaint. This is out of keeping with the situation for the vast majority of ombudsman offices and needs to be reformed.’

Along with giving the Ombudsman ‘own initiative’ powers, the panel recommended the removal of the ‘MP filter’. This current restriction requires people to take complaints about government services to their MP before they go to the Ombudsman. This adds an extra layer of bureaucracy that puts people off complaining. In 2017-18, this meant that over half of the complaints the service signposted to an MP did not return to the Ombudsman.

The panel used a holistic approach for assessing value for money, which is more effective than the narrow cost-per-case 1 method. The peer review not only saved the public purse money but brought in experts who understand the nature of the ombudsman organisation, to provide a more accurate picture.

Notes to Editors:

  1. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman provides an independent and impartial complaint handling service for complaints that have not been resolved by the NHS in England and UK government departments. We look into complaints where someone believes there has been injustice or hardship because an organisation has not acted properly or has given a poor service and not put things right. We share findings from our casework to help Parliament scrutinise public service providers and to help drive improvements in public services and complaint handling.
  2. The review panel consisted of the Ombudsman for the Republic of Ireland and President of the IOI, Peter Tyndall (Chair), the Financial Services Ombudsman Caroline Mitchell and Dr Chris Gill, an academic from the University of Glasgow.
  3. The International Ombudsman Institute (IOI) survey of IOI members in 2016 found that 71.4% of respondents had ‘own initiative’ powers of investigation.
  4. Own-initiative powers would extend justice to those least likely to complain, giving a voice to the most vulnerable. These powers would enable the Ombudsman to respond to early warning signs, investigate cases from whistle-blowers and intervene when a public service organisation is overburdened by a number of complaints about the same issue. On a larger scale, it would enable trends across a particular sector to be addressed in a single investigation.

The cost-per-case method calculates the average cost of processing a case by dividing the Ombudsman’s budget by the total number of cases dealt with. It is less accurate in this instance as it does not account for the large number of enquiries dealt with by the Ombudsman and their insight work to improve public services.


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