Examination of Witnesses (Questions 57-59)
SIR MICHAEL BUCKLEY AND MR ALAN WATSON
THURSDAY 21 MARCH 2002
57. Good morning all. It is good to see you again, Sir Michael and Alan Watson. We think this is your positively last performance in front of us.
(Sir Michael Buckley) It may well be so, Chairman, yes.
58. So it is a particular occasion for us. We are going to talk about your Parliamentary Ombudsman role this morning, based on your Annual Report 2000-01. Would you like to say a few words by way of introduction?
(Sir Michael Buckley) Yes, indeed, Chairman. Thank you very much. I do welcome the opportunity to present my Annual Report as Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration for the year 2000-01 to the Committee today. In that report I set out information about the Office's workload and performance during that business year and the memorandum you have before you brings the information up-to-date. Briefly, up to the end of February, the number of complaints received by my office was 28 per cent higher than the same period last year, although that is due in part to the referral of large numbers of complaints about Equitable Life. Other matters on which I have received significant numbers of complaints and inquiries include widowers' entitlement to widows' benefits; Railtrack; foot and mouth disease; and Independent Learning Accounts. Here I must apologise for a small error in the memorandum of evidence I put to the Committee. The figure of 1,721 complaints was for the whole of the year 2000-01 and not just the first 11 months. By building on the more flexible working methods which are described in detail in the report, and in particular the wider range of ways of dealing with cases, we have been able not only to deal with this large increase in the number of complaints but also to produce a positive outcome for the complainant in a higher proportion of cases. However, it remains my view that the time is long overdue for fundamental reform of the current ombudsmen arrangements in England to enable us to provide a still more responsive, speedy and flexible service to the public. The Committee is well aware, that I, with my English public sector ombudsmen colleagues, first raised the need for reform of the ombudsmen arrangements with the Government in 1998 and I am disappointed that little progress has so far been made. I have also, like some of my predecessors, argued for the need to make separate appointments to the post of Health Service and Parliamentary Ombudsman and I regret that the Government has reached a decision not to do so. Chairman, as you have said, it may well be that this is the last session of the Committee to which I will give evidence as Ombudsman. Since my first appearance before the Committee's predecessor, my Office has undergone many changes: backlogs have been cleared, output records have been consistently broken and productivity is much higher. The Office is, I hope, more responsive and accessible to those it serves. In conclusion, I would like to say how very much and very genuinely I am grateful for the support of the Committee. It has been a valuable relationship, if I may say so, and I am sure that will continue under my successor.
59. That is very kind. I think we have all enjoyed our association with you. I think it shows yet again the connection between your Office and this Committee is a very important part of he whole ombudsman system. If you look back over the five years that you have been in post, what would you identify as the most significant changes in the role of Ombudsman in that time?
(Sir Michael Buckley) I think it is not so much change in role, Chairman, as a change in approach. For most of the Office's history, the emphasis was very heavily on formal investigations, formal reports, and that indeed is very much the direction that the 1967 Act gives to the Office. I came to believe fairly early in my tenure as Ombudsman that that was increasingly unsatisfactory in modern conditions. Not only was it one of the reasons for the very large backlog which the Office had at the end of 1996, I believed it was not really suited to what so many people wanted. I have a rule-of-thumb distinction between a problem (which is something that can be rectified by action, as it were: the paying of a benefit or getting child support maintenance paid) and a complaint (which is when something has gone wrong and cannot be reversed and what is needed is explanation: for example, if a road has been built in the wrong place, it is not going to be taken up, but then what is needed is an investigation into what happened, why, and perhaps some sort of redress). The Office was good at dealing with complaints, with the elaborate investigation; it was not nearly so good at dealing with problems (the case of, as I say, typically, the woman who was not getting the child support maintenance that she needed). Increasingly, we have tried to push the Office in that direction, having more flexibility to deal with complaints/problems as they deserve, as their merits deserve, not to say that everything must be pushed into this investigation and reporting mode. That, I think, is the direction which we have taken, the direction which I think a new institution can take still further.