Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Health Service Commissioner for England Scotland and Wales (PSR 20)


  As far as the National Health Service is concerned, little needs to be added to what I said in my response to the Department of Health's listening document on reforming the Service's complaints procedure.[6]


  Most of the principles outlined in Annex A in relation to the handling and resolution of complaints apply equally to the Parliamentary side of my office. In particular, departmental complaints procedures should be reasonably speedy, and should be thorough, but not elaborate. Most large departments within my jurisdiction have prescribed complaints handling procedures, but their effectiveness varies from department to department. All too often the process is slow and does not address complaints in full, leading to further correspondence and often to a reference to me. Some small departments and other bodies within jurisdiction have no formal procedures and handle complaints on an ad hoc basis.

  In my Annual Report for 2001-01, I drew attention to the fact that while internal complaints examiners, such as the Inland Revenue Adjudicator and the Child Support Agency's Independent Case Examiner, make a valuable contribution to the effective handling of complaints, they are constitutionally part of the organisation complained against, and are bound by its rules and codes of practice. Necessarily, there are cases which I can investigate, but which an internal examiner, wholly or in part, cannot. And there are others where the internal examiner is constrained in what redress can be secured from the body complained about. In my view, it is in everyone's interest that cases like that (and cases which, because of their size and complexity, are likely to reach my office eventually) get to me sooner rather than later. My office does not require a complainant to exhaust every stage of the internal review process; it is generally prepared to accept a complaint for investigation if the complaint has already been put to the body concerned and the body has had a reasonable opportunity to resolve it.

  Some internal examiners are taking on responsibility for complaints against more than one body; and there have been proposals for new examiners. It is therefore important that complaints should be given sufficient information to make an informed choice of which route is best for them. Average case throughout times in my office have fallen dramatically in the last year or two; that makes for a particularly unfortunate problem if consideration of a case by an internal examiner takes a long time so as to make it difficult for my staff to carry out the full investigation which may be required.


  As far as redress is concerned, departments should have a reasonably generous and practical attitude to redress when they have made a mistake. Revised Treasury guidance issued in 1996 improved the chances of an individual securing adequate redress for the effects of maladministration; and there have been significant achievements by my office, not only in individual cases, but also in influencing the policies of departments. Nevertheless there are still aspects and areas of departments' approaches to financial redress which raise concerns:

    —  some departments who might be expected to do so do not have in place written guidance;

    —  some decisions on redress are taken at an unnecessarily high level;

    —  Treasury's delegated authorities seem inconsistent and illogical;

    —  reluctance to offer redress (for example in cases of delay caused by backlogs of work);

    —  reluctance to accept the full consequences of maladministration (for example where maladministration in one department/agency affects an individual's relationship with a different department/agency);

    —  differences in approach to the payment of interest on actual financial loss;

    —  inconsistency between departments/agencies in the level of and approach to consolatory payments;

    —  inadequate level of consolatory payments;

    —  reluctance to enhance reimbursement of costs to cover loss of use of money;

    —  lack of policy on redress for expenditure of individual's own time;

    —  increasing possibility of "big systems failure";

    —  over-generous time targets for completion of departments'/agencies actions;

    —  in sharp contrast in some instances to the tight deadlines and penalties imposed by statute on individuals).


  One final point is that no matter what kind of complaints handling system is operated by bodies within the jurisdiction of the respective Ombudsmen, until we get a better public Ombudsman system, there will remain for complainants difficulties such as accessibility, joined up action where more than one jurisdiction is involved, and speed of resolution. Early progress is needed on implementing the recommendations of the Cabinet Office review.

6   Office of the Health Service Commissioner for England, Response to Reforming the NHS Complaints Procedure: a listening document. Back

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