What does the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee do?
The Parliamentary Ombudsman is accountable to Parliament, but not to the individual members of Parliament such as MPs, Ministers or Civil Servants. This arrangement was designed to maintain the Ombudsman’s independence of Parliament, so that their work of holding the executive to account cannot be interfered with. It also makes it extremely difficult to hold the Ombudsman to account. You could argue that PHSO is accountable by law as it is subject to judicial review, but a quick glance here will demonstrate that the uphold rate for judicial review is extraordinarily low.
In order to play the accountability game, everyone has to answer to someone and so Dame Julie Mellor answers to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). This body was renamed in 2015 to take account of the new role it served and was previously known as the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) There is an annual show trial which is televised and Dame Julie is given a light grilling by the cross party members who make up the group. Bernard Jenkin is in the chair and has been since June 2010. Plenty of time for him to see through the ‘gamed’ data.
As well as the annual scrutiny meeting, PACAC can hold inquiries and dig deeper into issues of concern, calling upon witnesses and members of the public to attend and submit evidence. An example of which was the previous PASC inquiry into complaint handling at PHSO; Complaints: do they make a difference? All these inquiries give the impression that parliament is concerned and proactive, but the wheels of change turn very slowly indeed and far too often the report recommendations never make it off the page. Historical Overview of Ombudsman Reform
You have to give credit to PASC, the previous committee for the speed at which they delivered the inquiry and action to deliver the new Independent Independent Patient Safety Investigation Service (IPSIS) following the hard hitting report Investigating Clinical Incidents in the NHS. This investigation body should be functional by April 2016 and able to deliver forensic, multi-agency investigations into clinical incidents. A major achievement for the committee given the porridge of inertia parliamentarians must overcome.
What happens to the evidence?
The evidence which has been chosen is published on line, Oral evidence – complaints – do they make a difference? and the rest is ‘put somewhere safe’ presumably. The select committee also write annual reports and make recommendations to Government regarding PHSO. If you think of Bernard Jenkin more as Chief Librarian than an adjudicator, you will start to get the picture. A lot of evidence is discussed, a lot of evidence is recorded and a lot of evidence is stored; unfortunately as far as reform of PHSO goes, not a lot more happens with it. The following year it all goes round again and more damning information is revealed and more promises made of modernisation and cultural change. You can see the latest damning evidence against PHSO, and follow a link to the televised scrutiny meeting held on 12.1.16 here. phso-scrutiny
Can I write to the members of the PACAC committee?
Of course you can write, just don’t expect an answer. Unless one of the PACAC committee members happens to be your constituent MP then your letter is likely to be ignored. Parliamentary protocol prevents MPs other than your own, from corresponding with you. They simply don’t have the time. You might find you get an answer by writing to directly to Dr Rebecca Davies or Ms Rhiannon Hollis, the Clerks but don’t get your hopes up. All these people are busy, busy, busy running the country.
There is a lot of information on the PHSO web-site PHSO – corporate reporting but none of it contains any reference to PACAC or recommendations made following a review or an inquiry. PACAC have no coercive power over PHSO, so they can only ask nicely. Dame Julie can accept or ignore their advice at her discretion and this is all done behind closed doors due to, you guessed it, Parliamentary privilege. FOI request June 2013
If you would like to see some of the evidence presented to the now completed PASC inquiry – ‘Complaints – do they make a difference?’ you can see it here. Oral and written evidence
The links below will take you to the two reports published as a result of the PASC inquiry into complaint handling. The Pressure Group is now working with the Cabinet Office in an attempt to improve the new Public Service Ombudsman legislation which is to be delivered in response to these critical reports. We are convinced that the PACAC Committee know just how seriously PHSO continues to fail the public (and also its own staff 2015 Staff Survey), but there is little they can do and we must all hope that the new body can deliver a better service to the public and be held to account if it fails to do so.