Service-complaints body urged to press on with ‘long-awaited’ reform

MPs warn dangers of ombudsman’s current approach, as body cites improvements of three-year tech and data strategy

Watchdog MPs have criticised the ombudsman responsible for investigating complaints about public services for its ongoing strategy of refusing to look into some categories of grievance because of its high casework levels.

Members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman had a “lack of ambition” to return to its pre-pandemic service-delivery levels.

But the PHSO has claimed that a three-year strategic plan to “harness the power of data and technology for a modern, digital service” will help improve the accessibility of its service.

The ombudsman examines complaints from individuals about public services that have not been resolved by government departments, the NHS in England, and other public bodies.

From April 2021, backlogs caused by the Covid-19 pandemic led the PHSO to introduce a new policy of focusing on health-service complaints that “involve more serious failings” to help it deal with more than 3,000 outstanding cases.

The overall number of cases awaiting allocation by the PHSO had fallen to 1,647 by the end of last September. PACAC’s just-published report says the ombudsman was planning to make a “robust” decision on its future approach at the end of 2022-23.

PACAC members said they did not see continuing the policy as an “appropriate long-term solution”. They added that it was “regrettable” that the PHSO’s recent corporate strategy for 2022-25 made no reference to how the organisation would cope with the ongoing impact of Covid and high case levels.

Committee chair William Wragg said people failed by public services deserved the right for their complaints to be heard and any injustice they had suffered to be redressed.

“While it is positive that the PHSO’s backlog of cases has been brought down substantially this year, we are disappointed that its policy of not investigating health complaints deemed as less serious will continue for at least another year,” he said. “We have asked the PHSO to provide its evidence base for continuing this approach.”

Wragg urged the government to bring forward its “long-awaited” reform of the PHSO and bring the UK in line with international standards.

“This committee and its predecessors have made this recommendation for two decades. It is unacceptable the government has not addressed this sooner,” he said.

The PHSO is one year into a three-year strategic plan to “take us further down the road of becoming an even more modern and vibrant ombudsman service”.

The strategic plan – a key strand of which is supporting better use of technology and data – aims to improve public awareness of the ombudsman’s services and make them easier to access.

In evidence given before the committee in November, PHSO chief executive Amada Amroliwalla claimed that the strategy has already delivered improvements to customer service.

“We have made changes to our complaint forms so that we ask people for different and better information,” she said. “We have made changes to our letters and our templates. We have made changes to our technology systems to remove duplication and to increase automation. We have made changes in a number of areas, all designed to drive greater efficiency.”

The PHSO said in a statement that it was “pleased” MPs had recognised its “proactive approach” to managing the demand on its service and its policy of prioritising the most serious complaints. It did not address MPs’ concerns about PHSO’s ongoing approach to less serious health complaints.

“We will provide a full response to the committee’s report in due course,” it added.

Jim Dunton and Sam Trendall

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