Prospective Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman moots “frontline investment”

Rob Behrens tells MPs that office relocation and merged operations with local government counterpart can fund investment in complaints handlers

By Jim Dunton

18 Jan 2017

The government’s preferred candidate for Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has told MPs that moving more of the watchdog’s operations out of London and "converging" services with the Local Government Ombudsman will fund frontline investment.

Rob Behrens told members of a joint panel of Health Select Committee and Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee members that the measures would help the PHSO close an increased number of cases and underscore its competence.

Behrens, who is a former independent adjudicator and chief executive at Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, is ministers’ choice to succeed Dame Julie Mellor at the PHSO and said the watchdog would not have credibility with the health service and other sectors unless it could handle complaints effectively itself.

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“The key priority has to be to demonstrate a continued competence in closing an increased number of cases, and to do that you need to invest in the professional skills of the case handlers and to reduce other aspects of the organisation,” he said.

Behrens said it was “too early to comment in detail” about such moves but said he had changed the financial basis of the OIA by “taking money away from the leadership team and putting it into case handling”.

He added: “The leases for the property of PHSO in London and Manchester are coming to a conclusion in 2018, and there is talk of moving some of the operations to Manchester. That will have a very important cost-saving in terms of property.”

Behrens added that there were also  “happy conversations” to be had with the LGO about “convergence”, which he said would also bring cost-savings.

Last month, constitution minister Chris Skidmore published the Draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill, which proposed the creation of a new watchdog with a remit covering government departments and a range of UK public bodies, local government, adult social care, and the NHS in England.

Asked about the impact of the proposals on his immediate PHSO role, Behrens said the changing policy environment would represent a “big challenge” and the prospect of a merger within two years would rule out the idea of conducting a strategic review on where the PHSO’s future direction.

However, he said there was work at the watchdog that needed to be done “irrespective of whether the bill goes through”.

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