Background to PHSO


If you want to know the truth about the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, you won’t find it on the official site.  Rather than learn through bitter experience, use this site to discover the facts, starting with the background.

The purpose of the Ombudsman is to redress the balance between the power of the state and the rights of the individual citizen.  It provides a mechanism for citizens to hold government and public bodies to account and offers remedy in cases of maladministration. Calls for an Ombudsman service date back to 1954 and the Crichel Down affair.  The position was finally created by the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 which set out the role and limitations of the Ombudsman’s office.

Complete background for the curious The Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967  This act is the cornerstone of the present Ombudsman service. Key points established under the act are:

  • The Ombudsman is independent of government and the civil service.
  • The Ombudsman has complete discretion as to whether to investigate a case or not.
  • All written complaints should be made first to a Member of Parliament.
  • The terms ‘maladministration’ and ‘injustice’ are not defined by the act and are therefore open to interpretation by the Ombudsman.
  • The Ombudsman must not investigate if the individual has the right of appeal, or the opportunity of remedy through tribunal or court action.   (Ombudsman can use discretion here.)
  • The complaint must be made to the individual’s Member of Parliament no later than 12 months after the date of the grievance.  (Ombudsman can use discretion here.)
  • The Ombudsman must afford the officer of the government body concerned the opportunity to comment, but has total discretion concerning how it gathers evidence.
  • The Ombudsman has the power of the high court in relation to requesting documentation and the examination of witnesses including members of parliament and the crown.
  • The Ombudsman must consult with other Ombudsman services if they are of the opinion that the matter concerns them.
  • The Ombudsman is accountable to Parliament and must submit annual reports.

Commissioner Act 1967 from wikipedia plus PHSO review of the 1967 Act. Editor’s note: this page has mysteriously disappeared from PHSO’s website.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman also monitors health service complaints in the role  of the Health Commissioner following the Health Service Commissioners Act of 1993 wiki/Health_Service_Commissioners_Act_1993     This situation was formalised and the new name of ‘Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’ is now used to show this relationship.  Health service complainants have direct access to the Ombudsman and are not required to put their case forward through an MP. Following the demise of the Healthcare Commission in 2009, the Health Service Ombudsman is the only body charged with investigating individual complaints. wiki/Healthcare_Commission    Approximately two thirds of complaints currently presented relate to health service issues.  In January 2012 Dame Julie Mellor DBE was selected as the new Parliamentary Ombudsman, taking over from Ann Abraham.

Accountability The relationship between the Ombudsman and parliament is complicated.  Governments are responsible for policy making and there is a direct link between policy and the quality of services received.  The Ombudsman is not accountable to the government however, but to Parliament through annual reports and the scrutiny of a select committee.   Prior to 2015 the Ombudsman was monitored by the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) made up of cross party members, who in 2015 changed their name to Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee  (PACAC) to reflect their changing role.  pacac

The select committee is primarily there to help the Ombudsman disseminate report findings to relevant government bodies.  In this respect they assist the work of the Ombudsman in holding the government to account.  They also have a scrutiny role which is in conflict with their supportive function. You can find out more about the role of PACAC here.

The Ombudsman’s office is independent of members of Parliament and Civil Servants, which means that your MP has very limited opportunity to intervene on your behalf. Decisions made by the Ombudsman are held to account only by judicial review.  This situation was clarified by the courts in 1993.  Since that time there has only been one successful case against the Ombudsman.   ‘Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration V exparte Balchin  1996.  The complaint lasted 20 years before resolution, so not a route for the faint hearted.    Details of the Balchin case from Trevor R. Nunn’s excellent Ombudsman watch site.

see point 19 on PHSO website   Editor’s note:  interestingly this is another page which has since disappeared from the website. Follow this link and see bullet point 4 for a summary. uk/orc/law/public/cases

How cost effective is the Ombudsman?

Ronnie Cowan, SNP member of PACAC pointed out that PHSO does not compare favourably with the Scottish Ombudsman who has approximately 10% of the funding and staff of PHSO, but delivers more complaint investigations pro rata.

Comparing the Ombudsmen 2015  (Figures are best approximations due to different recording methods between Ombudsmen)

Enquiries 2014/15:

Parliamentary Health & Services Ombudsman :       29,000

Welsh Ombudsman :                                                   3,470

Scottish ombudsman :                                                 5,574

Cases investigated 2014/15:

PHSO :                  4,159

WO :                         290

SO :                          944

Unit resolved case cost (total cost of organisation divided by investigations)

PHSO:                 £8,407

WO:                   £13,706

SO:                      £3,495

Cost to taxpayer (funded by the taxpayer)

PHSO:       £37.0M

WO:             £4.0M

SO:              £3.3M

Percentage of cases upheld:

PHSO:              36%

WO:                  72%

SO :                  50%

Number of employees:

PHSO:              446

WO:                    53

SO:                     42