The Blog

The Case for Ombudsman Reform

Now more than ever a modern ombudsman service is needed to play its part in restoring people's confidence so that their voice will be heard and that they do have power when services fail them.

A General Election is just around the corner and politicians are inevitably focusing on the policies and promises they hope will take their party to victory.

They will be outlining what their party will do for people - more jobs, better schools, better access to care and treatment.

But commentators have said that people are not convinced politicians really listen to their voices. As a result people feel powerless to influence government services for the better and are apathetic about voting - whatever new policies politicians come up with. We think part of the solution to the lack of voice and power may lie in an unexpected place.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman was set up almost 50 years ago to give people a voice and real power in relation to the state. If people are not satisfied with the response to a complaint about a UK central government service or health services in England they can bring it to us. We are the final adjudicator on complaints about these public services. Where we uphold complaints public services must put things right.

For example, as a result of our adjudication government funded a compensation scheme for Equitable Life policy holders who had been let down by the Financial Services Authority acting on behalf of the Treasury. The scheme has paid out over £900 million so far.

Another example concerned farmers complaining to us about payment delays which affected their livelihood. We upheld their complaints leading to both apologies and compensation payments from the Rural Payments Agency.

So often what drives people to us is a sense of public duty to stop what happened to them happening to anyone else. They are frustrated that they have not been listened to and want the opportunity to improve public services for others.

One such recent case involved a family whose lives were put at risk because the Home Office didn't listen to their concerns about an overseas criminal and continually failed to put right their earlier mistakes. Determined to see change, they brought their complaint to us. As a result of our adjudication their voice has been heard. The Home Office has committed to review the failures identified and take action to improve what they do.

Another way in which we can make people's voices count is by sharing our work with Parliament to support them in holding services to account for making improvements.

Last year we published a report on poor sepsis outcomes across the NHS called Time to Act in which we published 10 recommendations for improvement which, according to the UK Sepsis Trust, could save up to 12,500 lives. One year on, Parliament is using our casework to hold NHS services to account

So what is the problem that needs fixing?

Too often complaints are met with defensiveness from the organisation being complained about. When this is added to the reluctance of people to complain a toxic cocktail is created that means problems go either unheard or unresolved.

Our research shows that four out of 10 people don't complain even though they want to - a statistic that is remarkably similar to the numbers of people who don't vote.

Even when people do complain, two thirds say it didn't make a difference. This means the relationship between people and the state is not as strong as it should be. We believe some simple legal changes could make it much easier for people to complain, get justice for themselves and give them a louder voice leading to service improvements.

Firstly, people need better access. There are three public ombudsman services in England, covering central government, local government, health and housing but there are some gaps in the services covered.

Public service delivery models have changed beyond recognition. Many services are commissioned through a mixture of the private or third sector. So people are left confused as to which ombudsman to turn to if things go wrong or haven't been resolved by the organisation that provided the poor service.

Ombudsman services need to keep pace with these changes so they can better help people with complaints about poor service.

That's why we are calling for a single Public Service Ombudsman covering all public services, local and national, in England as already exists in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Secondly, people can complain directly to us if they have an unresolved problem about the NHS, but they have to go through an MP if they have a complaint about a central government department or agency. We want changes to our powers to give everyone direct access to our service.

Thirdly, we seek the ability to conduct investigations without the need for an individual complaint. This is to ensure big and repeated mistakes affecting vulnerable service users are addressed.

These changes will help to further drive improvements in public services and help Parliament to hold public services to account as well as delivering better value for money for the tax payer.

We are getting on with what we can do to modernise our service without legislative change and recognise there may be occasions when the length of our investigations or quality of service is not as good as we want it to be in the future. In the last year we provided adjudications for six times more people than in previous years and halved the average length of time to complete an investigation of a complaint.

We believe the final stage of our modernisation will be achieving the legal changes described here. The Government is reviewing the case for change, but we all need to ensure that this does not slip down the list of priorities following the election.

Now more than ever a modern ombudsman service is needed to play its part in restoring people's confidence so that their voice will be heard and that they do have power when services fail them.