Call for more transparency at Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman
25 January 2021
The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has called for a new legal framework for Ombudsman services in England as a way of improving people’s experiences of enquiries and complaints about the NHS and other government bodies.
The call came in the latest scrutiny report by the Committee on the work of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), titled Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Scrutiny 2019-20. The report said the ability of the PHSO to obtain value for money from its work was limited by the outdated legislation that governs it. As part of this reform, the Committee report called for the combining of the PHSO with the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.
The Committee also called for:
- more transparency in the content of PHSO annual reports and accounts;
- more (and more independent) peer reviews of the work of the PHSO;
- improvements in PHSO performance, as currently measured by service-user surveys, with regard to several specific aspects of its Service Charter Commitments.
The Committee repeated the recommendation from its previous report on the PHSO (Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Scrutiny 2018-19) – that legislation to modernise the PHSO was necessary. The Committee believes the outdated legislative framework limits the PHSO’s value for money. Particular recommendations for the legislation include merging the PHSO with the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and granting own-initiative powers, which would allow the Ombudsman to launch investigations without first receiving a formal complaint.
PACAC also called on the PHSO to be more transparent in the way the outcomes of enquiries and complaints are set out in its reports. For example, cases which are defined as ‘not ready to be taken forward’ are currently grouped together with cases that ‘should not be taken forward’. This potentially conflates cases that could lead to investigations with cases that should not. These categories should be listed separately, the Committee report said. The PHSO could also improve transparency, the report said, by separately listing complaints that are ‘partially upheld’ and those that are ‘fully upheld’.
The Committee welcomes the PHSO’s efforts to set itself stretching targets for Service Charter commitments, measured by complainant feedback. Nevertheless, the PACAC report said the relatively low scores in certain areas, such as on explaining its decisions and recommendations, and collecting all relevant evidence, were areas of continuing priority for improvement. The Committee requested an update on performance in these categories when data for the mid-year point was available.
The PACAC Chair, William Wragg MP, said:
“The Committee appreciates the pressing priorities facing the Government, including, of course, the current pandemic. But reform of the legislation governing the PHSO is worthy of parliamentary time. The PHSO represents the final stage in a complaints process that can be traumatic for complainants and may include serious matters such as the death of a loved one. It is essential that people have faith in a transparent, effective organisation. The current out-dated legislation undermines this crucial ambition”.
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