Parliament & the Ombudsman

phsothefacts-logo-D3.pngIn what way is PHSO accountable to Parliament? 

The 1967 Commissioner Act made the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s office accountable to Parliament and not to Government. see act here   This clever play on words effectively means that ministers are left with clean hands, as any misdemeanors are not down to them.The Ombudsman serves as a barrier between the angry mob and the policy makers.

 It’s the place where complaints go to die.

The Oxford on-line dictionary gives a definition of Parliament as:  noun

  • (Parliament) (in the UK) the highest legislature, consisting of the Sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons: the Secretary of State will lay proposals before Parliament an Act of Parliament
    •  the members of Parliament between one dissolution and the next: the act was passed by the last parliament of the reign
    •  a legislature similar to the UK Parliament in other nations and states: the Russian parliament

Although, in this definition ‘Parliament’ includes the members of Parliament between one dissolution and the next, ministers will happily tell you that the Ombudsman is not accountable to Ministers or MPs and nor should it be, as in order to pass judgement on government organisations the Ombudsman must have independence.  In practical terms, it is difficult to see how you can be accountable to an institution but not to the people who function within that institution, but I guess they make up the rules.

If you think that the Ombudsman must be directly accountable to someone, then perhaps the Sovereign is your best bet, as the Queen actually puts the pin in the list provided by the Prime Minister to make the selection.  In January 2012 Dame Julie Mellor DBE was firmly skewered by the royal hand.  You could always write to the Queen with any concerns you may have and I am sure that someone will reply with a very polite response on the finest of paper telling you absolutely nothing.  Getting mail from Buckingham Palace might impress the postman, but I doubt that it would unduly disturb her majesty unless thousands of us did it.  Now there’s a thought …

So the Ombudsman dismisses your case, despite your overwhelming evidence of malpractice and wrongdoing.   You have had a review which has followed the tried and tested customer service technique of what you can’t deny you just ignore and your case is now ‘resolved’.   The Ombudsman will now put you with the ‘Customer Care Team’ if you continue to contact them.  This is a closed loop as no-one within this team appears to have the authority to do anything about your complaint and they are unable to put you in touch with anyone who does.  You are feeling pretty hacked off, but have decided not to take the Ombudsman to judicial review as your bank balance could not take the strain.  You turn instead to Parliament to hold the Ombudsman to account, just like it said it would in the 1967 Commissioner Act.  You start a campaign of letter writing and emails.

If you contact anyone who is not your own constituent MP you will get one of three responses, starting with the most likely:

  1. Nothing.  No acknowledgement, no reply, nothing.
  1. A short letter telling you that due to Parliamentary protocol, it is not possible for anyone other than your constituency MP to deal with your concerns.
  1. A longer letter spouting party political propaganda which fails to address any of the points you raised.

If you get nothing then you can write again, if you write and email enough times someone will contact you to say they haven’t received any of your other correspondence and ask you to send it all again.  The postal service for Parliament is a disgrace and they continually fail to receive letters, even those that have been sent recorded delivery.

It is probably not fair to blame ministers or individual MPs for this state of affairs, as I doubt that they ever see any of the letters, they probably never even know about them and wander round the corridors of power in blissful ignorance of any concerns that may be raised by members of the public regarding the Ombudsman.  Correspondence is all dealt with by faceless civil servants who probably turn your letters into shredded hamster bedding and all under the protection of parliamentary protocol.


Strangely, there is very little information available on-line concerning parliamentary protocol.  Suffice it to say that it is a set of rules made up by parliamentarians to protect parliamentarians which is monitored by parliamentarians.      Parliamentary protocol

Contacting anyone other than your MP will basically do you no good at all.  They are all far too busy doing surveys for IPSOS Mori or meeting with lobbyists to deal with anything that might concern members of the public.  There are one or two notable exceptions.  Both Margaret Hodge Labour MP for Barking and Ann McKechin Labour MP for Glasgow North, replied promptly and appropriately to my correspondence.  Michael Meacher opened the door with a kind gesture to help us out and will be sadly missed in the house.  A good honest man with a heart of gold.

If you want to actually receive a reply from anyone in parliament then you stand a much better chance if you ask your question as a FOI request using the online site ‘What do they know’.  If your question is in the public domain they are less likely to ignore you or send you drivel.  You can also use this site to find out who else has been worrying public bodies with irritating questions.  It can make quite amusing entertainment on a wet Sunday afternoon.