Can Oliver Letwin deliver an Ombudsman service fit for the 21st Century?

PHSO Pressure Group at cabinet office

Della Reynolds, co-ordinator of PHSO Pressure Group at the Cabinet Office.

On 7th October the PHSO Pressure Group attended a stakeholders meeting held at the Cabinet Office to discuss complaint handling and the role of the Ombudsman. We were invited by the Rt. Hon. Oliver Letwin and present at that meeting was Robert Gordon CB and his team.  Mr. Gordon has had a distinguished career in the Scottish Office where, among other things, he helped to set up the devolved Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Gordon has been charged with researching the current Ombudsman landscape and reporting back to the Cabinet Office with suggestions for reform.  We were delighted to be able to speak directly to him and his colleagues.  This was a valuable opportunity to discuss the service user’s experience and share a little of our ‘gold-dust’. Our initial concern was that the inquiry process would deliver nothing more than a re-branded version of a fundamentally flawed process.  It will take more than a common portal and shiny new logo to restore public confidence in the Ombudsman.  There is sufficient evidence in the public domain (Mid. Staffs, Morecambe Bay, Morrish family)  to demonstrate that this service is not fit for purpose and requires fundamental reform.

Once the Cabinet Office conclude their inquiry, with the help of Mr. Gordon, they will be drafting new legislation.  The original legislation has been in place for 47 years and quite possibly has never served the public in all that time; it is therefore vital that we use this opportunity to create an Ombudsman service which meets the needs and expectations of the public in the 21st Century. At the core of this legislation there must be measures to provide effective accountability for users of this service.  The total discretion enjoyed by the Ombudsman to date has no place in a modern democracy.  We are aware that the Ombudsman must be the final arbitrator, but allowing this body to exclusively handle all complaints about its own service creates an Alice in Wonderland scenario where the omnipotent Queen of Hearts simply makes up the rules as she goes along.  If you need proof, look no further than this year’s annual report where the Ombudsman states that from upwards of 27,000 complaints handled they only had to review their decisions 0.2% of the time.  Any organisation which believes that it has a 99.8% accuracy rate needs a reality check.

Mr. Gordon’s suggestion for robust accountability was to set up a monitoring board of ‘independent’ members who would scrutinise the Ombudsman’s performance against key indicators.  It is not too difficult to see the obvious flaws in this plan.  Firstly who are these ‘independent’ people and who appoints them?  There seems to be a cartel of like-minded people who are willing to sit upon each other’s boards and do little more than maintain the status quo.  PHSO currently have a Unitary Board, chaired by the Ombudsman herself and stuffed full of PHSO employees, plus an Audit Committee led by Sir Jon Shortridge KCB and it is questionable whether either of these committees do any more than rubber stamp the decisions put before them.  The suggestion was made by the PHSO Pressure Group that board members for any panel which is designed to hold the Ombudsman to account should be drawn from recognised campaign groups and charities such as the Patients Association, AvMA and the PHSO Pressure Group itself, to include fierce critics such as James Titcombe and Julie Bailey.

 If you really want to know how an organisation delivers then ask those who have received.  

Hopefully, this possibility will be investigated by Mr. Gordon and his team.  Other suggestions for accountability included giving the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) the powers it needs to hold the Ombudsman to account for poor service delivery.  Currently PASC cannot pursue any individual complaint nor can it ask questions of the Ombudsman relating to individual complaints.  To say that the Ombudsman is accountable to parliament for service delivery is unrealistic given that PASC is so severely handicapped.

 The truth is that the Ombudsman is accountable to no-one but herself and we all know of the corrupting influence of ‘absolute power’.  

The use of the word ‘corruption’ makes politicians feel uncomfortable and Mr. Letwin shifted in his seat as he pursued this subject, questioning why this would be the case.  It is our belief that both PHSO and LGO are morally corrupt in that they have total disregard for the plight of individuals as they manipulate the evidence to find spurious reasons to close cases down.  Complainants, who have been denied evidence in drawn out complaint processes where public bodies have ultimately lied and covered up the facts, then find themselves duped once again by the shiny rhetoric on Ombudsman’s websites promising impartiality and remedy.  In 2013-14 only 11% of all formal complaints were upheld by PHSO to some degree following an investigation.

The Ombudsman’s office has never been staffed in a way that shows real commitment to honestly resolving cases.

A quick comparison with the Netherlands reveals that their Ombudsman service employs 70% of staff to carry out investigations and the vast majority are trained lawyers, whereas PHSO currently have only 30% of staff as investigators and none of them have either legal or clinical training.  The front-line staff at PHSO are being asked to take on 10x more cases this year to comply Dame Julie Mellor’s plan to ‘give more impact for more people’ by increasing the number of investigations.  The drive to improve ‘quantity’ has further impacted on the key issue of ‘quality’ with investigators required to take on up to 15 cases simultaneously.  Although PHSO have promised to address an investigation methodology which has been accepted by Mick Martin, Managing Director as ‘not fit for purpose’ this organisation moves at the pace of a three-toed sloth on sleeping tablets.

Only Churchill expects so few to do so much and the staffing levels and skill mix required for proper investigation must be urgently reviewed.  Currently PHSO have no option but to close down a large percentage of cases in order to prevent complete system breakdown. The Pressure Group put forward the idea of dividing the Ombudsman service into a designated Health Service Ombudsman for England in line with devolution.  This could then be staffed by experts in clinical care.  NHS England recently reported that complaints topped 3,000 per week and Dame Julie Mellor has been promoting Ombudsman services across the media to encourage more people to come forward.  There can only be disappointment ahead as newcomers join a backlog of over 1,000 cases currently waiting in the system. PHSO cannot be trusted to put their own house in order.  Senior management appear to be caught in a torpor of indecision. Mr. Gordon must do more than consult with the usual suspects in order to carry out his review and the Pressure Group suggest that he would benefit greatly from discussing matters with representatives from the PSU staff union among others.

We are convinced that Mr. Letwin is set on reforming the Ombudsman landscape and in order to achieve this aim we urge him to discuss the way forward not with those who caused the problems but with those who have suffered from them.  The public. 

You can see the full summary presented by the PHSO Pressure Group to Mr. Letwin and Mr. Gordon here:

Can Oliver Letwin redeem himself as the Complainers’ Champion?

Oliver Letwin behind barsIt would be easy to believe that Oliver Letwin did not so much grasp the mantle of Complainers’ Champion as have it thrust upon him in much the same way that disgraced Stalinist were encouraged to vacation in Siberia.  After all it’s not every politician who wants to be recognised as Minister for Complaints.

The truth is that Mr. Letwin has time on his hands since being replaced as Cameron’s policy advisor in April 2013, by Jo Johnson, brother of Boris, the British Kennedys.    It was thought that Mr. Letwin was too distant from the concerns of ordinary voters to write the next Conservative manifesto.  Educated at Eton and Cambridge, before becoming an academic, Mr. Letwin had little chance to develop an understanding of the lives of ordinary voters.  This may be the reason why, in July 2011 he called for public sector workers to be in fear of losing their jobs in an effort to improve productivity.  Fear of the Gulag could also have done the trick, but I dare say that even Mr. Letwin realised that this would be a step too far.

It is well known that Oliver Letwin is in favour of savage cuts to public services, which he sees as bureaucratic and inefficient.  In 2001, in the run up to the general election, he stated that the Tories would slash taxes by £20bn, putting money back into the pockets of the taxpayer whilst simultaneously devastating public services reliant on taxpayer funds.  It did not come to fruition at that time, but with austerity came the opportunity to legitimately slash public spending, without the subsequent tax rebates as I recall.

With cuts to public services there will inevitably be more complaints.  Front-line staff, over run by an impossible workload will inevitably make mistakes.  So is Oliver Letwin the right person to be overseeing a complete overhaul of the complaint process and the role of public sector Ombudsmen?    Having created the chaos which caused the complaints the aim would surely be to provide a watertight system which allows for efficient complaint disposal without leakage and scandal.  Job done.

Perhaps the idea is to privatise all public services putting them beyond the reach of freedom of information requests and data release, making the task of white-washing complaints a whole lot easier. In 2004 Mr. Letwin stated that the NHS will cease to exist after five years of Tory rule.  The big sell off has certainly begun, but five years was a tad optimistic for such a mammoth organisation to be turned piecemeal into profitable private companies.

But let us not dwell on the negative.  Mr. Letwin has the opportunity as Complainants’ Champion to become a national hero.  He has already agreed to meet with a coalition of campaign groups on 24th July to discuss the forthcoming inquiry.  Representatives from the PHSO Pressure Group, National Health Action Party and LGO Ombudsman Watch will meet with Mr. Letwin at Westminster to share their ‘gold dust’ knowledge of issues and solutions.  Complainants are primary stakeholders in the discussion process and intend to contribute throughout, in order to guide Mr. Letwin and the Cabinet Office in making the right choices.  The result could be legislation which actually provides protection for the citizen from the abuse of power.  Public sector Ombudsmen who actually believe that complainants are honest with valid concerns.  An end to bias, corruption and arrogant disregard for the public.  So, Mr. Letwin, are you able to deliver?