A publicly funded watchdog designed to “investigate complaints that individuals have been treated unfairly or have received poor service from government departments, public organisations and the NHS in England” is nothing more than an expensive sham. This is the allegation of grassroots pressure group PHSO – The Facts, who are determined to see value for money, and a proper balance of power restored between government and the individual.
What on Earth is the PHSO?
You’ve likely never even heard of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO). But if you are a UK taxpayer, you’re helping to fund it to the tune of £32m a year. It is the most expensive Parliamentary Ombudsman in the developed world, and delivers the worst results.
The Ombudsmen was set up in 1954 on the back of the Crichel Down Affair. A family had their land compulsorily purchased by the government for use by the military during World War II. Winston Churchill promised the land would be returned after the war. Instead, the land was handed to the Ministry of Agriculture and leased out at a significant profit. The scale of the controversy saw the Minister for Agriculture resign in disgrace, and exposed the absence of a means of upholding complaints such as these against government offices and agencies.
A few years down the line, the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 set out the roles and responsibilities of the new PHSO. The PHSO has operated ever since. You can complain to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) about any government body or public service. This would include the tax office, courts, jobcentres, UK border agency, Ofqual, all government departments and many more.
In 2012, Dame Julie Mellor DBE was selected as the new Parliamentary Ombudsman, taking over from Ann Abraham.The PHSO has more than 430 staff and operates out of the prestigious Millbank Tower on the North Bank of the Thames in Westminster.
So, with all these staff, a budget of £32m a year and almost 27,000 complaints each year – one would expect a number of these complaints to be upheld. Maybe 30%…25%…10%?
Actually, according to the PHSO’s own annual report, just 1.4% of cases last year resulted in an investigation – that’s 384 investigations from 26,961 complaints. Of those, 86% were upheld or partially upheld.
“PHSO – The Facts” looked at other countries to compare the percentages of complaints that led to investigations. They found a huge disparity. The UK figure of 1.4% compares to 28% in Australia, 22% in Canada, and 18% in Denmark.
This means that the UK’s Ombudsman has an average cost per case of over £83,000, while Australia can manage a case for £1,608, Canada for £1,870 and Denmark for £7,805. In fact, of the seven other nation’s studied – not one had an average cost per case exceeding £10,000.
So, is it possible that this watchdog is there to bury bones, rather than bite? Cock up or conspiracy, the bottom line is the UK has the world’s most expensive parliamentary watchdog, delivering the worst results.
Who’s Watching the Watchdog?
The oversight of the PHSO is shockingly (albeit not by the standards of our parliament) complicated. It Ombudsman’s office is independent from government, yet the Ombudsman is picked by The Queen and nominated by the Prime Minister – making it something of a perk that PMs can trade for favours. The PHSO is accountable to Parliament by providing annual accounts to the Public Administration Select Committee – but this Select Committee has no actual power over the PHSO and can only make recommendations. In fact, the only way to hold the PHSO to account is through Judicial Review. A process the current government is doing everything it can do do away with.
Yet, in its entire history, there has been only one successful Judicial Review against the PHSO.
So to cut a long story short – an ombudsman designed to hold government and public bodies to account appears to be suppressing and dismissing complaints at a rate unprecedented in the developed world – and it is almost impossible to hold the ombudsman to account. Plus, you get to pay for the pleasure.
Well, this lot are having none of it.
PHSO – The Facts have been gathering together those tens of thousands of let-down complainants and formed a pressure group to remind the PHSO that they exist, and they aren’t going anywhere. The aim of the pressure group is “to demonstrate to Public Administration Select Committee that the PHSO is not fit for purpose and should be totally reformed.”
They have two objectives:
1. To improve the service for all those who follow, so that each receives a fair and unbiased investigation, remedy and closure.
2. To compel the Ombudsman to thoroughly investigate historic cases where there has been no satisfactory resolution.
The group have managed to secure a ‘listening event’ with the Ombudsman Dame Julie Mellor DBE to present their concerns to her directly. They are also busy preparing a full report from all those who have had their cases stymied by the PHSO, “which (they tell me at interview) highlights the corrupt nature of their investigative system”. They plan to share the findings with parliament, the press and the public. They also engage in direct actions and public speaking events to raise awareness of the issues – which most people only find out about when its too late, when they need the service and it doesn’t work for them.
You may well ask – well what will that achieve? Well, it shows that there are people in this country unwilling to meekly accept the erosion of their democracy. The government only ever does what it can get away with – the more we tolerate, the further they reach – into our pockets, into our homes, into our personal data, into our welfare state, into our public services. This group, and others like it, are engaged in a battle to wrestle that power back. So instead of asking ‘what will that achieve?’, how about asking ‘how can I help?’
They are, after all, fighting for all of us.
Here are the group in action (the pink earmuffs are to show that the Ombudsman is ‘not hearing us’)