The government has been urged to revive a mothballed reform to Britain’s “over-complicated and intimidating” system for raising complaints about public services in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, said MPs’ staff were being put under “great stress” amid the outbreak by a longstanding requirement for concerned members of the public to raise complaints with MPs themselves rather than coming straight to his watchdog.
And he urged the government to revive stalled plans to reform the UK’s system for sounding the alarm.
The PHSO was established in 1967, with 400 staff across London and Manchester tasked with making sure citizens can get redress for maladministration, mistakes and poor service from government departments and hospitals throughout England.
But the law requires people who have complaints against government departments to first go to that department to get it resolved — and then raise it with their MP if they do not get a satisfactory response.
In an exclusive interview, Behrens told CSW’s sister title PoliticsHome that this was a “clear anomaly” with NHS cases, where citizens can go directly to the ombudsman for help without the “complicated” process of getting an MP to acknowledge the issue and then take it up.
He is urging the government to revisit plans which have languished since 2016 to scrap the requirement as part of a planned overhaul to the UK’s string of separate ombudsmen covering different services.
“It’s uncontroversial, it’s necessary, it’s long overdue,” he said of the proposed change.
“And it gets rid of complications and will encourage political engagement by citizens in a way which doesn’t happen at the moment. Very few people are opposed to this idea. And it was in the draft legislation of 2016.”
And he added: “What I will say is that my international colleagues and Europe and around the world are astonished that citizens in the UK have to go through their member of Parliament in order to get to the ombudsman.
“I feel that is damaging to the number of people who can get access to justice. Because they think it’s over-complicated and intimidating to go through their MP.”
Behrens said MPs were currently “inundated” by casework from constituents hit by the coronavirus crisis — as he warned that the current set-up “absolutely” increases the pressure on parliamentarians amid the pandemic.
“This is putting their staff under great stress,” the ombudsman told PoliticsHome.
“This is not something that MPs should have to do. And it’s something that we at the ombudsman are extremely well-placed to do.
“So I think there is widespread support for this reform both inside parliament and outside it.”
The Institute for Government think tank has previously warned that the ‘MP filter’, as it is known, is an “arbitrary barrier that prevents the ombudsman from investigating failures”.
They have argued that ditching the requirement “would shed an arbitrary hurdle that currently limits accountability”.
But a draft bill that would have scrapped the filter and set up a new combined Public Service Ombudsman — covering departments, local government, social care, and the NHS — has been left on the cutting room floor since late 2016.
At the time ministers said it would “ensure every citizen knows their voice matters and bring the ombudsman framework into the 21st century”.
Urging the government not to let the issue go amid the focus on coronavirus, Behrens said: “Everything that’s happened with Covid emphasises the need for more effective redress than we currently have.
“So, for example, there is a separate ombudsman for social care compared to health.
“And, yet, as we all know for the Covid crisis these things are intimately joined together,
“And it would be more effective and a better use of resources if one ombudsmen scheme looked at the performance across health and social care.
“At the moment that’s not possible in this country but perfectly possible in, for example, all devolved countries, the Republic of Ireland and right across Europe.”
The PHSO boss is calling for a revamped bill on the issue, which would also include the “power of own initiative”, allowing the body to launch its own investigations on issues of concern without first having to have a large number of complaints.
Behrens said such a power could have helped the government move much more quickly to spot the Windrush scandal, which saw people who came to the UK from the Caribbean as part of a post-war rebuilding effort denied access to a host of public services.
“If we’d had the power of own initiative, as they have in Northern Ireland, we could have investigated that scandal and provided a resolution much more quickly than is going to be the case currently,” he said.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "We will consider improvements to the Ombudsman system as and when Parliamentary time allows."
Matt Honeycombe-Foster is the acting editor of Civil Service World's sister title Politics Home, where a version of this story first appeared.