Citizens will soon be able to lodge direct complaints about government departments rather than having to go through their MP, under plans unveiled by the Cabinet Office this week.
The Draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill, published by Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore, sets out plans to bring the two existing public services watchdogs – the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) and the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) – under one roof.
The PHSO currently hears public complaints about the quality of services delivered by government departments and the NHS, while the LGO performs a similar function for council-run services.
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But a 2014 review of the PHSO carried out for the Cabinet Office by local government leader Robert Gordon called for the merger of the two bodies, saying the current divisions were "complex, poorly understood and confusing for the public".
That view was also shared by MPs on the Public Administration committee, with a report published in the last parliament calling for an end to the PHSO's so-called "MP filter", which means members of the public can only take some complaints to the PHSO by going through their MP.
Although the filter does not apply to NHS-related complaints, which make up the majority of those dealt with the by the PHSO, it has been criticised in a string of reviews over the decades, and PASC's 2014 report said it "defies all logic" and "deters people from making complaints".
According to the new draft bill, any member of the public will now be able to directly complain to the new watchdog to report concerns about maladministration or a failure in service delivery, cutting out the need for them to first contact their member of parliament.
Launching the draft legislation, Skidmore said the "core role" of the new organisation would "continue to be the investigation of complaints where a public body has not acted properly or fairly or has provided a poor service".
But he added: "We will also give the Ombudsman a wider and more explicit role in championing improvements in complaints handling and promoting good practice.
"To enable the Ombudsman to carry out their work effectively and efficiently they will be supported by a modern governance structure, including a statutory board with strengthened accountability to parliament."
The move has also been welcomed by the current heads of the LGO and PHSO. In a joint statement, the LGO's Dr Jane Martin and the PHSO's Dame Julie Mellor said the creation of a single body would "make it easier for people to have their complaints about public services resolved".
They added: "The current complaint system is too complex and fragmented, leaving people confused as to which ombudsman to turn to if things go wrong or haven’t been resolved locally
"We have long been urging the government for these reforms, and are delighted we are one step closer to making this a reality. We will be looking at the proposals carefully and look forward to working with the government to agree a practical and realistic timescale."
According to the latest figures, the PHSO currently employs 443 full-time staff, and handled 29,046 complaints in the last year. The smaller LGO employs just 159 officials full-time.
Update: This story was amended on December 7 to clarify that the MP filter does not apply to NHS related complaints