My name is Della Reynolds and in 2012 I submitted a complaint about Ofqual to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. I had survived a two-year battle through the first tier complaint process and was relieved to find that the Ombudsman was ‘independent’, ‘impartial’ and able to ‘put things right’. With hope of final resolution, I passed over a fat file of evidence to my MP in September of that year. Just a month later I received the outcome of my assessment and was surprised to discover that the assessor could find no evidence of maladministration on the part of Ofqual and would therefore not recommend my case for full investigation.
I knew my case inside and out by that stage and knew that hard evidence had been ignored in order to come to this conclusion. This was confirmed just a month later when in November 2012 I received advice from a barrister who stated that OCR had breached the NVQ Code of Practice 2006 in three key respects. The NVQ Code of Practice is a statutory policy and Ofqual, as regulators are charged with ensuring that OCR complies with this legislation. So how did my assessor miss the evidence so clearly identified by the barrister?
As the snow fell outside my window in the run-up to Christmas 2012, I sat at the dining room table and carefully composed a review request which ran to more than 5,000 words. I was now able to focus on the three key issues identified by the barrister and highlighted all references made to these in my original documentation to PHSO. There were a large number of direct quotes from the statutory policies and direct quotes from staff members at both Ofqual and OCR outlining their responsibilities, all confirming that breaches had been overlooked. I supported my case with direct quotes from the barrister’s advice; an expert witness and sent off my review request just within the three month time period in January 2013.
Amazingly, I received a letter from PHSO stating that despite my detailed review request they were unclear as to the nature of my complaint and asked if I could provide more information. This is quite likely a standard delay tactic on the basis that a percentage of people will finally throw in the towel at this point and give up. I took a deep breath and compiled yet another letter to confirm that my original assessment did not follow the PHSO’s 6 principles of good complaint handling and my assessor did not make evidence-based decisions.
Following this further correspondence, my case was passed to the review team for ‘a closer look’. It took them until early March to come up with their decision. Perhaps they were waiting for a new supply of whitewash for it was obvious that it hadn’t taken them two minutes to determine that all my evidence was just ‘subjective opinion’ and there was no reason to doubt the original assessment. The reviewer had no qualms in dismissing the opinion of the barrister, although he had no legal training himself. He had given me the standard phone call a few days before I received this review decision. Clearly, it was all done and dusted by this time, but a box-ticking exercise dressed up as public consultation required them to make a phone call to ensure that they had all the facts rights. I used the number he left on my answer phone to call him directly and ask him to explain how policy statements and expert opinion could be determined ‘subjective’. I could hear him backing away from the phone. Sounding as though he had just crammed a custard cream in his mouth, he told me to call customer services and to put an end to any further discussion he hung up.
My call to customer services revealed that they could not talk in any detail about my case as they were not party to it (convenient) but essentially my case was closed, there would be no further contact and my only option was to take out a judicial review. After some internet searching I discovered that my odds of winning a judicial review were infinitesimally small, so decided to save my time and money and channel my burning frustration and sense of injustice in another direction. I wrote the PHSO reviewer a scathing letter with mention of Winston Smith and the Ministry of Truth and closed with a threat of starting up a campaign. How that must have made him smile knowing the Ombudsman is unaccountable to public thanks to the discretion placed in the 1967 legislation – hence ‘corrupt by design’.
It was obvious that the whitewash I had received was standard practice for PHSO and there had to be others who had suffered in the same way. Possibly many others. In order to find them I opened a twitter account @phsothefacts and a facebook page Parliamentary Ombudsman Campaign and with no idea of how these two things to spoke to each other, I signed up for a social media course at my local adult education centre. I knew that social media was a powerful weapon and with the right knowledge I could use it as the slingshot which might do damage to this particular Goliath. The course was a real eye-opener and with a bit of tweaking my facebook page started to gather likes and my twitter account started to gather followers. The campaign had begun.
On twitter I had used #NHS and found many angry campaigners with a great deal to say. With #PHSO I found nothing. Equally, there were a large number of websites devoted to personal stories of NHS failure but a PHSO google search revealed nothing but the LGO Watch site, dedicated to highlighting the corruption of the local government ombudsman but now defunct. I read this site with great interest and found the parallels most illuminating. Inspired by LGO Watch and realising that no-one had done a similar service for PHSO, I spent that summer (2013) putting together the phsothefacts website, without a single clue as to what I was doing. Thank goodness for Youtube and WordPress, who together held my hand through the hours of trial and error button pushing. By the end of September I was ready to launch and opened to 29 hits, mostly my own.
A few days later on 22nd September my team and I turned up to speak at Hyde Park Corner at an NHS rally organised by a group of campaigners on twitter. It felt as though things were starting to take off, as I prepared my banners and dusted off my soapbox. Fortunately, there was not too much heckling from what is known to be a rather hostile audience who attend this venue in much the same way as the Romans attended a gladiator fight. I guess they were all a bit bemused by my delivery which totally failed to mention God or aliens. They may also have been confused by the fact that the phsothefacts team were all sporting pink earmuffs to represent ‘not being heard’.
In all this time I had been writing to every man and his dog and getting the kind of replies you only get from the dog. MPs, if they bothered to reply at all, hid behind ‘parliamentary protocol’ and couldn’t possibly get involved for fear of treading on the toes of my own MP. Although I informed them that I was pretty certain that he wouldn’t be unduly bothered, well he certainly gave me that impression.
Many of my letters were sent to the long-suffering MPs who sat on the Public Administration Select Committee, (PASC) now named PACAC. They had not heeded the obvious rule to avoid all connection with public sector complaints and were regularly in receipt of a large number of angry letters from disappointed PHSO customers, mine among them. Julie Bailey had kicked up a huge stink over the poor NHS care and complaint handling at Mid. Staffordshire and possibly to dismiss the lingering smell of scandal, PASC decided to hold an inquiry into complaint handling entitled ‘Complaints: do they make a difference?’ I duly submitted my evidence and was glad to have an outlet for my still simmering wrath. You can see all the written submissions here: Complaints – do they make a difference
In October 2013 the Rt. Hon Oliver Letwin gave evidence to PASC as part of this inquiry. You can see a video of this meeting here parliamentlive.tv and on the same day he was heralded in the press as the ‘Complainers Champion’ when he announced two reviews into the way public sector complaints were handled, which were to be launched in January 2014. Oliver Letwin appoints himself complainers champion
He vowed to create, for “the first time in history,” a system in which complaints are treated as “a huge potential mine of information on service delivery”, adding: “I am intending to drive that forward myself.”
Brave words, unfortunately, not backed up by brave action and Mr Letwin has since disappeared from view on the political scene.
Unexpectedly, a buff envelope arrived from the House of Commons inviting me to give oral evidence to the PASC committee as part of their ongoing inquiry. I went to represent the phsothefacts website which was still in its infancy and duly had some business cards made up (which I forgot to take). On 26th November 2013, twelve total strangers from across the country gathered around the horseshoe table in the commons meeting room, to give evidence of poor PHSO complaint handling directly to members of the PASC committee. As we each told our story there was much nodding of heads as we realised that we had all been delivered the same standard closure service, regardless of the nature of our cases or the strength of our evidence. When mention was made of the head of the review team, who deals the final blow to persistent complainants, an audible sigh of recognition resonated from our side of the room.
When the bell rang (like a public school) the meeting was called to a halt and the participants filed out to meet up again in the cafe on the ground floor. We exchanged phone numbers and email addresses and while we listened with sympathy to each other’s stories we were joined by a member of PASC who congratulated us on our calm presentation and suggested that we form a pressure group. There was instant agreement among us that this would be a sensible plan and as I already had the facebook page, twitter account and website, I offered to be the coordinator. We agreed there and then on our two aims and have never deviated from them.
To improve the service for all those who follow, so that each receives a fair and unbiased investigation, remedy and closure.
To compel the Ombudsman to thoroughly investigate historic cases where there has been no satisfactory resolution.
For a new group, we hit the ground running. Mr Greg Mulholland, Lib Dem MP on the PASC committee had shown an interest in seeing written evidence from our group in support of our verbal claims. We got straight to work and evidence files buzzed through our email accounts to eventually find their way into an annotated folder of collective complaint handling chaos. As Oliver Letwin had also shown an interest in the ‘huge potential mine of information on service delivery’ we prepared a file for him as well. I doubt that he expected to receive quite so much information quite so quickly because we didn’t hear a peep out of him. Both of these files were personally handed in by Pressure Group members at the next PASC meeting which was on the 10th December 2013 when the regional Ombudsmen gave evidence to PASC.
A number of us met up again a few days later for the annual scrutiny meeting of the Ombudsman, Dame Julie Mellor at PASC. Just like a panto, there was an element of audience participation as we nodded in agreement with tough questions from the committee and shook our heads in disbelief to the replies from the Dame. We stopped short of calling out ‘Oh no you didn’t’ but our body language spoke a thousand words. parliamentlive.tv
In order to achieve fresh reviews of our historic cases we needed to apply pressure directly to PHSO. However, improvements to the service as a whole required changes to legislation to remove the total discretion currently enjoyed by the Ombudsman and to deliver effective accountability. So in January 2014 we got ourselves organised to lobby parliament on the basis that only MPs can pass the legislation required to improve the Ombudsman service. We sent out a mailshot to all 650 MPs. Not an easy venture, downloading all those email addresses. We took a section of the alphabet each and coordinated our timing to send them out over the same two days. For all our efforts we got not a single response; such is the way with mail shots.
We then moved from scatter gun to sniper bullet and targeted individual MPs who looked as though they might be receptive to our cause. On the 5th February 2014, we received a reply from Michael Meacher MP who simply asked, ‘What can I do to help you?’ After many years of fruitless letter writing as individuals, the door to parliament had finally swung open. We asked if Mr Meacher could arrange a meeting for us with Mr Letwin as we still had no response to our file of submitted complaint evidence and we wanted to contribute to his inquiry into complaint handling. Mr Meacher, good as his word, promptly wrote Mr Letwin a letter to that effect.
In the meantime, through more persistent letter writing, one of our group had managed to secure a meeting with Dame Julie Mellor at Millbank tower for the 6th February. Although this meeting was primarily to discuss her case, she invited me to attend to represent the PHSO Pressure Group. I happily agreed. Individually, we had experienced nothing but a closed door from PHSO. No matter what we sent them they were ‘not hearing us’ so it was a great opportunity to ask them directly if they would review our historic cases. The reality is that these cases only became historic because of the neglect to deal with them effectively in the first place. Once our cases were closed we were all supposed to go away and lick our wounds, but some of us just kept coming back, year after year after year. (Will Powell, James Titcombe, Julie Bailey are notable examples – there are many other unsung heroes doing the same.)
At the meeting in Millbank Tower, I found the atmosphere to be cold and defensive. The staff sat on one side of the table and we sat on the other. Between us was an impenetrable wall of defensiveness. This was bolstered by graphs, data and statistics which were used by Dame Julie to prove that all the problems were in the past, things were different now and that PHSO would quell all complaints with their new business initiative, ‘ More impact for more people’, which promised to investigate far more cases in the future. There was plenty of jam for tomorrow, but on the issue of historic cases, a line was firmly drawn in the sand by Ms Mellor who stated that PHSO simply didn’t have the resources to look into historic cases. The physical door may have been opened, but the psychological one was still firmly shut. We had been listened to, but not heard.
At this meeting, I requested a seminar for members of the Pressure Group, in the style of the ‘listening events’ put on by CQC following the scandals of Mid. Staffordshire and Morecambe Bay. Our request was to be considered, but I didn’t hold out much hope as I left their office that day. Surprisingly, a short time after we were informed that PHSO agreed to hold a listening event and a date of 10th April was initially made.
It was at the AvMA conference on 20th March that we first heard the name, Robert Gordon. Mr Gordon was writing a report concerning complaint handling and the Ombudsman landscape. I circled his name on my crib sheet at the time, but we were unable to locate any direct contact details for him, so no immediate follow-up.
Then in April 2014, we had another Westminster breakthrough when Rosie Cooper MP agreed to meet with us in the House of Commons.
It was clear that she had heard all the appalling stories of poor NHS complaint handling compounded by collusion from PHSO. She nodded in agreement as we sat with her on the sofa in the commons ‘family room’ and it was obvious that we were pushing against an open door. As Ms Cooper was a member of the Health Select Committee she had a direct role in holding the Ombudsman to account when Ms Mellor and her team come before the HSC for questioning. In the months since we had formed, we had collectively written a full report listing the flaws of the PHSO processes and putting forward possible solutions. This was a major piece of work undertaken and delivered by dedicated pressure group members. Pressure Group Report We sent MMsCooper a link to our full report and handed her a hard copy of our summary report which contained the key points. She asked us what we would like her to do to help promote our cause and once again we asked for a meeting with Mr Letwin as none had been forthcoming. As complainer’s champion and the key driver in reform he was clearly the man we needed to speak to. Ms Cooper agreed to pass on our request and a copy of our report directly to Mr Letwin.
After a number of false starts with changes in dates and venues, we eventually met with the senior staff at PHSO for our seminar on 26th June 2014. Twenty representatives from the group attended the meeting in London and we each took three questions to which we hoped PHSO would supply answers. It was a very emotional meeting as people re-lived their original trauma with the added pain of continued injustice. You can read more about the seminar here phso-seminar-we-talked-they-listened-what-next/
We had no idea when we left if our request for historic case review would be accepted. Mick Martin the new Managing Director spoke convincingly at the end of the meeting about doing all he could to put things right. We all waited for the outcome and over the next few months we were contacted individually by senior staff members and it emerged that PHSO were prepared to re-examine our cases in order to learn the lessons as part of their ‘modernisation’ programme. This was a major breakthrough for our group and one which we hoped would bring closure to many grieving families who have had a long fight for acknowledgement and justice. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way and in the fullness of time, the cases were closed again without uphold. Mick Martin left under a dark cloud of scandal soon to be followed by Dame Julie Mellor. deputy-ombudsman-complicit-in-cover-up
We were growing in strength as a group, with new members joining and increased attention for the phsothefacts website. By coming together we had found a voice loud enough to be heard.
Meanwhile wheels within wheels were moving in Parliament and Mr Meacher secured a meeting for us with Mr Letwin at the Cabinet Office, on the 24th July 2014. We are extremely grateful to both Mr Meacher and Ms Cooper for smoothing the way and after seven months of waiting we were able to speak directly to the man who will draft the new legislation. Gary Powell from LGO Watch was invited to attend and give evidence gathered over a decade regarding the appalling state of the Local Government Ombudsman. Dr. Richard Taylor from the National Health Action Party was invited to put forward ideas for reforming the NHS complaint system. As both a doctor and previous MP he knew the failings of this system from both sides. I attended to represent the Pressure Group and put forward our ideas for reform of PHSO. We had only 30 minutes in total so focused on two key questions each. My first question was whether Mr Letwin would agree to a further meeting with campaign groups and charities who have a wealth of knowledge to add to his inquiry. He agreed without hesitation. It certainly did appear to all present, that Mr Letwin was keen to learn more about possible solutions to improve complaint handling across government. can-oliver-letwin-redeem-himself-as-the-complainers-champion/
On 7th October we met again with Mr Letwin and also the elusive Mr Robert Gordon. Gary Powell once again represented the views of users of the Local Government Ombudsman service, Katherine Murphy CEO of the Patients Association represented NHS complaint handling issues and I represented the Pressure Group and reform of the PHSO. Unfortunately, by this time Mr Gordon had almost completed his inquiry and was due to finalise his report and there was no sign he took on board any of our comments once his report came out. Gordon review – better to serve the public
The government response from the Cabinet Office was even worse than this report suggested and removed all powers of compliance from the Ombudsman making it a totally toothless watchdog. fatal-extraction-new-health-service-watchdog-has-all-teeth-removed/
Then the public voted for Brexit and any ideas to reform the Ombudsman were put on the back burner (once again) and this is no longer a subject on the political agenda. In April 2017 Rob Behrens became the new Ombudsman. He was kind enough to meet with members of the group on 10th October 2017 and listened with both horror and interest to our case histories. Subsequently, he made no promises to intervene but it would be a hard-hearted man who could turn his back on the suffering he has witnessed first-hand. We continue to put pressure on PHSO and government via the select committee PACAC to review historic cases.
From our coffee shop beginnings, a group of ordinary people unfairly shut out in the cold, had managed to find a way into the heart of government. Collective power has untold strength, but in order to harness it you must remain united and focused on clear, attainable goals.
We are now into our 5th year and we have learnt that while that talking is good – action is better and sadly there has been little positive action to report here. We are looking forward to publishing our first good news story about PHSO under Rob Behrens, so do let us know. This site has now had over 80,000 views. PHSOtheFACTS is growing all the time. If you would like to join us then contact me (Della Reynolds) at firstname.lastname@example.org