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Public sector ombudsman staff call 999 “once a week” out of fear for complainants

High demand across the public sector since Covid has put a “great deal of extra pressure” on the service, the ombudsman’s leaders told MPs.

By Zoë Grünewald

Welcome to the Parliament Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, digests the latest and most important committee sessions taking place in the House of Commons and House of Lords. Previous editions can be found here.

Who? The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) took evidence from Rob Behrens CBE, the head of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), and Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive officer and deputy ombudsman, as part of its annual evidence session scrutinising the PHSO.

When? Tuesday, 14 November 2023, at 10am.

What was discussed? The session delved into the work of the PHSO, a public body that makes final, impartial decisions on complaints unresolved by the NHS in England, UK government departments, and other public organisations.

The committee questioned the PHSO’s leaders on performance and productivity, staff management and training, value for money, and impact on other organisations. The organisation’s corporate strategy for 2022-2025 was examined, along with reflections on the outgoing ombudsman’s seven-year tenure, concluding in March 2024.

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MPs also heard from Hilsenrath, recently appointed chief executive, regarding her priorities for the role and how she intends to fulfil the organisation’s corporate strategy.

So what did they say? The session covered various complex issues, from the results of the ombudsman’s annual report to the outgoing legacy of the chair, Behrens.

Behrens told the committee he was pleased with the progress that the PHSO had made: “I inherited a deeply unhappy organisation, unclear where it was going, with a toxic organisational culture. Within a year, the 2018 peer review noted that PHSO was out of intensive care and into recovery.” Behrens attributed its improvements to “new collective leadership” and continuous exchanges about “values, role, and our direction”.

He told the committee that the annual staff survey shows a marked improvement in scores for staff engagement, commitment, being proud to work for PHSO, and learning and development, stating, “while there can always be improvements, there has been continuous progress throughout the seven years of my leadership.” Behrens also pointed out that they had professionalised their case handlers, introduced an independent review of clinical advice, and set new benchmarks on quality, creating a new expert advisory panel to advise on difficult and complex cases. He concluded: “I leave PHSO in a much stronger position than it was when I arrived, and I look forward to my successor taking it forward with rigour and vigour.”

One of the major themes picked up by the committee was the rise in demand for the ombudsman since the pandemic, particularly in detailed investigations and complex cases. The committee pointed to the higher number of results upheld, which Hilsenrath attributed to “a 20 per cent increase [in demand] generally and a 10 per cent increase for detailed and primary investigations”, as well as a spike in the number of complaints coming to front-line complaint handlers. “We are experiencing a greater number of more complex cases, which has implications for dialogue between us and the complainants who come to us. Many of them are coming from having a long and slightly difficult relationship with the service provider about whom they’re complaining.” There were elements of “broken trust” and a “distressing number of people” suffering from mental health challenges.

Hilsenrath also shared with the committee the increased strain placed on ombudsman staff: “I was told recently that in our intake department, which is our front-line case handling centre, we are calling 999 once a week because of concerns for the well-being of the complainant who’s contacted us.”

She concluded that demand was high “across the public sector generally” and that was putting “a great deal of extra pressure on the service as a result”. She said the ombudsman was responding by recruiting extra caseworkers and implementing improvements to the way the organisation works.

Behrens and Hilsenrath were also questioned on the ombudsman’s failure to meet its own target of closing 95 per cent of cases within one year. The committee queried why only 77 per cent of cases had been closed between 2022-2023, despite increased budget and staff. Behrens explained that “like any public service”, they had struggled through the pandemic, but the time taken to resolve cases in the last year “has been improving steadily”.

Any conclusions? The pair concluded that there were still many challenges and opportunities for the ombudsman, including bringing down their waiting list for cases, training and development for complaint-handling teams, and improving culture and leadership across the board.

What next? Behrens will stand down from his role in March 2024, with his successor to be announced in due course. As these sessions occur yearly, there will be another scrutiny session next year to assess progress in the areas identified.

[See also: Dropping the Mental Health Bill is yet another broken Tory promise]

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