Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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MPs demand “outdated” PHSO is transformed into a “people’s ombudsman”

In “Time for a Peoples’ Ombudsman”, published Monday 28 April 2014, the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) calls for a “People’s Ombudsman” and says the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), which investigates complaints against the NHS and other government departments and agencies, is outdated.  Citizens should have direct and more user-friendly access to the Ombudsman.  It should also have “own-initiative” powers to investigate problems in government departments, agencies and the NHS.

The Committee notes that none of the Ombudsmen created since the PHSO’s operations were established in legislation 47 years ago have adopted the same restricted model as the Parliamentary Ombudsman.  PASC says PHSO is in danger of being “stuck in time”.

PASC recommends changes to allow people to appeal directly to it (instead of only through their MP as at present). PASC also recommends giving PHSO the power to initiate investigations in areas of concern, prompted by its own research, public concern or a whistleblower.

The Committee says

  • As a priority, the “iniquitous restriction” on citizens’ direct and open access to PHSO, known as the “MP filter”, must be abolished (as is already the case in respect of NHS complaints).
  • PHSO must be able to receive complaints other than in writing: such as in person, by telephone or online, just as is expected of any normal complaints system.
  • PHSO should have “own-initiative” powers to investigate areas of concern without having first to receive a complaint from a service user.
  • Parliament should strengthen the accountability of PHSO. PASC, along with other Departmental Select Committees, should make greater use of the intelligence gathered by the PHSO to hold Government to account.
  • A consultation should be held on the creation of a single public services ombudsman for England.
  • At the same time, there must be a distinctive ombudsman service for UK non-devolved matters.

Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of PASC, said

“We are publishing this report the day Parliament gets back, because this report is really addressed to MPs.  We have to make these changes.  PHSO is part of our service to our constituents, and its way behind the times.  Our voters have a right to complain about public services when mistakes, misunderstandings and maladministration occur. We so often see that people complain not for their own benefit, but to ensure lessons are learned and the same mistakes are not inflicted on others. As we recently reported, the disaster at the Mid-Staffs hospital is a tragic example of what happens when the complaints system does not work.

“As Dame Julie Mellor has put it, there is a ‘toxic cocktail’ in respect of Government’s complaints handling—a combination of the British reluctance or the inability to complain and a defensive rather than receptive attitude in public services—that is poisoning efforts to improve public services. An effective ombudsman service can help bring about the change in attitude, behaviour and leadership that we need. Complaints must make a difference. Complaints should be welcomed and used to help to improve public services for everyone. Our conclusions are aimed at creating a more effective People’s Ombudsman that better serves the public and can be part of a modern approach to delivering excellent public services.  It is up to Parliament to change the legislation, so we are looking for a commitment from government to get it done.”

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