Ombudsman finds that sorry really is the hardest word

Ombudsman's report highlights poor complaints handling as biggest cause of upheld cases in 2014-15

By Suzannah.Brecknell

10 Nov 2015

Departments’ failure to apologise or put things right was biggest cause of upheld complaints in 2014-15, according to a report published today by the Parliamentary Health and Service Ombudsman.

Of 885 investigations completed last year, the Ombudsman upheld 33%, and the most common problem in these upheld complaints related to organisations’ own complaint-handling systems.

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One in four upheld complaints came to the Ombudsman because the department did not apologise properly, did not acknowledge its mistake and did not take action to put things right.

Writing for CSW, Julie Mellor, Chair of Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, said: “No organisation is perfect, but people should have confidence that when things have gone wrong in a public service, those in leadership positions will make sure things are put right.”

Mellor also noted that the Ombudsman “upheld a staggering 69 per cent of the 158 complaints we investigated about the Home Office, more than double the average uphold rate for government department and their agencies”.

The rate of upheld complaints has remained high in the Home Office despite a general trend for falling rates. In 2012-13 the Ombudsman upheld 84% of all complaints it investigated, and this dropped to 37% in 2014-15. This drop happened in part because the Ombudsman lowered its threshold for investigating unresolved complaints, meaning the number of cases investigated has risen almost eightfold since 2012-13.

Nearly half – 48% - of all upheld complaints about the Home Office were due to delays. In one case, a 17 year-old asylum seeker waited ten years before the Home Office decided on his case.

In 2013-14, just 31% of upheld complaints cited delay as a factor. The report notes that this could be the result of “high volumes of old legacy immigration cases that the Home Office dealt with last year”. Legacy immigration cases made up 21% of all Home Office investigations last year, and the Ombudsman upheld all of these complaints.

Nevertheless, the report says: “Our casework clearly shows that the Home Office failed to address delays and poor decision making in the immigration system last year and did not adequately deal with the impact of these findings.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: "We take complaints about our service very seriously and will work closely with the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to address the concerns raised in this report.”

Across all of government, delays were a factor in 25% of upheld complaints, making them the most common service-related problem.

Four departments –  the Home Office, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ –  make up 85% of complaints about government departments and agencies.

Both DWP and the HMRC had relatively low uphold rates of 22 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. The report credits this to the fact that both departments have an “independent second tier” through which complaints must pass before reaching the Ombudsman. Mellor added that “both departments have shown a willingness to learn from complaints.”

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