Opportunity knocks for ombudsman reform

5 Jul 16

The turmoil created by Brexit presents an ideal opportunity to address a range of constitutional anomalies, not least the fragmented system for public service complaints

Busy man, that Bernard Jenkin. The MP is not only active in supporting Andrea Leadsom’s right-wing candidacy for their party’s leadership (as well as remaking the country in the image fashioned by the Leave campaign), he remains chair pro tem of the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee, which has a sheaf of concerns in front of it.

The most recent is the opening given by Julie Mellor's resignation as parliamentary and health services ombudsman. The back story (bad judgement about a deputy in a context demanding squeaky cleanliness) is less important than the opportunity opened by her going for a thorough remake of public sector complaints handling.

The ombudsman reports to Jenkin’s committee and he could, if he focused, use the vacancy to concentrate the Cabinet Office’s attention on a restructuring that has been widely recognised as necessary for years. Why should members of the public have to go to MPs before they trigger ombudsman investigations? Why lump together ombudsman services for central government and the NHS and retain separate arrangements for local government in England?

Under Jenkin and his predecessor Tony Wright parliament long ago came to consensus. Citizens deserve a more integrated, simpler mechanism – a single point of contact – for dealing with public service complaints that for whatever reason have to be escalated beyond procedures available within NHS trusts (already creaking under the weight of regulation), Whitehall departments and local government. Report after report, including the Cabinet Office’s own latest review have bemoaned a landscape cluttered with overlapping jurisdictions, different organisations combining scrutiny, regulation and complaints handling in baffling profusion. It’s a function unfit for ‘care’, provided simultaneously by the NHS and local authorities.

Post-Brexit turmoil ought to be an occasion for starting to deal with our multiple constitution anomalies. If, as the Leave campaign put it, the UK is ‘taking back control’, a necessary condition has to be sorting out structures of governance. If fair voting or the House of Lords are too hot to handle, then a more effective scheme of securing redress for citizens let down by public services could be a place to start.

But a major proviso is that reform cannot begin and end with the public services. Citizens at large rightly regard telecoms providers, rail companies and energy suppliers as ‘public’. They are let down, mistreated and failed just as painfully by the mega-companies as by NHS trusts and councils. The Conservative Party leadership candidate backed by Bernard Jenkin is a former banker and doubtless as antagonistic as that breed tends to be about supervision and customer rights. But any moves to rationalise public sector complaints must be paralleled by a sincere attempt to recalibrate rights of redress against financial institutions, utilities and private providers of essential services – such as Southern Railways.

Private sector ombudsman arrangements are a hodgepodge of voluntary and quasi-statutory schemes and, with transport, major absence of any fair complaints regime. Any government not blindly wedded to the doctrine of markets should prize the empowerment of customers through access to redress, enforced by public authority.

Public bodies, including regulators, also need to be subject to checks and balances. MPs have called for a minister for complaints or similar. But there is a danger of creating a bureaucracy to supervise bureaucracy – one that the existing ombudsman services have not always avoided.

Complaints, as all good public managers know, are welcome because they provide vital intelligence about how the organisation is working. And they are best dealt with quickly and ‘locally’ by the clinicians involved, by the planners, by the executives who are literally on the case.  There should be a court of appeal, but any redesign for a single public services ombudsman should ensure it is genuinely a last resort.

  • David Walker

    former managing director, public reporting at the Audit Commission and deputy chair of an NHS trust

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