Former Cabinet Office director set to lead public services watchdog after MPs give thumbs-up

Rob Behrens, former director of the Cabinet Office's International Public Service Group, set to head up Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman after grilling from MPs

By Civil Service World

23 Jan 2017

MPs have given their approval to the appointment of Rob Behrens as the new parliamentary and health service ombudsman, after quizzing the candidate on his bid to lead the public services watchdog.

The PHSO hears public complaints about the quality of services delivered by government departments and the NHS. 

Its current chair, Dame Julie Mellor, announced her resignation last summer after admitting to “mistakes” in her handling of correspondence about the PHSO's former managing director, Mick Martin. Martin himself resigned in April 2016 amid controversy over his response to sexual harassment claims at former employer Derbyshire Healthcare Foundation.

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Behrens, the government's preferred candidate for the top job at the PHSO, was put through his paces last week at a pre-appointment hearing run jointly by MPs on the Health Select Committee and Public Accounts and Constitutional Affairs Committee. 

Following that grilling, in which Behrens mooted a shift in PHSO's operations out of London in order to fund investment in its frontline work, a new report from the two committees says the candidate "has both the professional competences and personal independence necessary to fulfil this role".

"His in-depth knowledge and understanding of the role of the Ombudsman and the experience he has acquired at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator in Higher Education will stand him in good stead in taking on the diverse and complex role of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman," the committees said. 

"We are convinced that his professional background and skills will allow him to bring a deep understanding of the role of Ombudsman to the challenges he will face as the PHSO. We wish him every success as the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman."

As well as his time as the chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator in Higher Education, Behrens' CV includes a long stint as a civil servant. He joined the organisation in 1988, and served in roles including director of the International Public Service Group, a key Cabinet Office job in Tony Blair's administration. He left Whitehall in 2006.

The PHSO is traditionally appointed for a non-renewable term of no more than seven years, although the committee points out that, in Behrens' case, this timeframe may be disrupted by the planned merger of the PHSO with the Local Government Ombudsman, the body which plays a similar role in investigating public complaints about local authorities.

Interviews for the PHSO job were conducted by a panel that included Ministry of Justice permanent secretary Richard Heaton and the former perm sec of the Department of Health, Dame Una O'Brien.

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