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 so that they can hold the executive to account. This independence, however, 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 it is virtually impossible to win a case against PHSO at judicial review.
In order to play the accountability game, everyone has to answer to someone and so the Ombudsman 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 scrutiny meeting which is televised and the Ombudsman is given a light grilling by the cross-party members who make up the committee. Bernard Jenkin is in the chair and has been since June 2010. Much of the written evidence submitted in advance of the annual scrutiny is very damning of the Ombudsman service and contains relevant facts and figures acquired by the public following FOI requests, but disappointingly little of this is used to prevent the waffling, business-speak answers from the Ombudsman and CEO. You can see the oral scrutiny session for 2017 here and read the written evidence here
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 for the new Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) following the hard-hitting report Investigating Clinical Incidents in the NHS. HSIB became functional in April 2017 and can currently investigate up to 30 clinical cases a year. Mr Jenkin hopes that once established this body will be expanded to deal with all major NHS complaints. No alternative complaint handling body is currently in the pipeline for parliamentary complaints, unfortunately.
PACAC 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 evidence is revealed and more promises made of modernisation and cultural change. There is much blame loaded on the outdated legislation (1967) but dealing honestly with the evidence from complainants does not require changes to legislation just a willingness to deal honestly with the facts from PHSO management down. The new Public Service Ombudsman legislation has been shelved due to Brexit and may never see the light of day. In any event, the draft legislation was appalling and would not deliver a better service to the public but no doubt Mr Jenkin was hoping that on the back of this legislation a new ‘scrutiny’ body would be set up leaving PACAC just to act as a disseminator of PHSO reports. You can read more on the reform agenda here
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. PACAC have no coercive power over PHSO, so the Ombudsman can accept or ignore their advice and PACAC are forbidden by law from scrutinising individual cases, so not a lot of help really. If you would like to see some of the evidence presented to the previous PASC inquiry in PHSO – ‘Complaints – do they make a difference?’ you can see it here. Oral and written evidence
The PACAC Committee know just how seriously PHSO continues to fail the public given the amount of evidence they have seen over the years but there appears to be little they can do. So much for accountability.
PHSOtheFACTS give evidence to PACAC December 2016