Service user complaints met with ‘fob-off and brick walls’, watchdog warns

Written by Tevye Markson on 31 May 2022 in News

Ombudsman claims that departments see feedback as a nuisance

Credit: Mohamed Hassan/Pxhere

The public services ombudsman has warned that there is a growing trend of government departments seeing complaints from service users as a nuisance.

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Rob Behrens said people are losing their faith in public institutions because there are “too many cover ups, fob-offs and brick walls to navigate”.

Speaking at the launch of the ombudsman's annual report, Behrens slammed the government’s approach to complaints and called for the PHSO to be reformed.

The ombudsman is calling for the MP filter – a temporary measure introduced in 1967 which means complainants to the PHSO must go through an MP – to be removed.

Behrens also slammed the government’s removal of the ombudsman’s access to ‘safe space’ NHS investigations in March as part of the Health and Care Act (2022), calling it "a disgraceful backward step" and "the first limitation on ombudsman powers for 55 years".

'Safe space' allows NHS staff involved in an incident to give evidence about mistakes privately to the Health Service Safety Investigations Body, which cannot be shared with anyone else except coroners. Previously, the PHSO could see material gathered in this way but that changed when the act passed in March.

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The PHSO was established 55 years ago to provide parliament with an independent and impartial service to handle complaints about public administration. Behrens described as “an outdated, flawed, but still useful remit”.

He said the "emerging trend” of governments seeing complaints as a nuisance is due to a “leadership deficit”.

“It's clear that there is a serious problem in the erosion of trust in public bodies in the UK”, he said.

“Rather than having a written [constitution], British people have an implied social contract, whereby they work hard and pay their taxes in exchange for public institutions that uphold values of integrity, quality, and transparency. But what we are seeing repeatedly is a failure for public bodies to live up to these standards.”

Behrens highlighted how an error in Department of Work and Pensions systems dating back to 2011 had affected 118,000 people with disabilities and health problems, including a seriously ill women having her benefits payments severely cut by error, leaving her unable to heat her home and buy food and her hair falling out. The ombusdman reported on this issue in January, calling on the government to "urgently rectify the injustice".

“What is most shocking in all of this is that the DWP, an organisation that is responsible for supporting those most in need, made a choice to deny the right to compensation following their mistakes over benefit payments,” he said.

“We get stories about this nearly every month. It is unacceptable, and we're working closely with the Work and Pensions select committee to address this issue.”

Behrens also pointed to another case published by the Ombudsman in April where a woman made a rape allegation in Turkey in and was told to go away and enjoy the rest of her holiday.

“That is shameful. That is shocking. That should not happen in any department anywhere in the United Kingdom,” Behrens said.

A government spokesman said: “All departments have processes in place for responding to members of the public and a robust complaints procedure for individuals to escalate should they wish. We keep these under constant review, including based on advice from organisations such as the ombudsman."

The publication of the ombudsman’s annual report comes two months after it released draft Government Complaint Standards, which encouraged departments to “welcome complaints in a positive way” and “regularly promote their wish to hear from their service users and show how they are using learning from all feedback – including complaints – to improve services”.


About the author

Tevye Markson is a reporter at PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets as @TevyeMarkson.

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