The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has warned of a “substantial backlog” of cases that has developed at the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) as a result of the pandemic.
In a report on the 2020/21 performance of the Ombudsman, the complaints handler of last resort for NHS and Government services, the MPs said that they remained concerned at the impact of delays on complainants.
The committee said the Ombudsman’s annual report showed that complainants had to wait longer for a decision on their case compared to 2019-2020, “despite a smaller overall caseload”.
It added that these difficulties had been attributed to a number of factors including NHS and Government departments struggling to contribute to PHSO's investigations due to increased pressure from the pandemic, complications from remote working and an increase in the complexity of complaints.
The MPs did, however, welcome progress in several areas, “including the PHSO’s commitment to engaging more with its staff and ensuring diversity in the workforce, contributing to discussions in the international Ombudsman community, and developing a complaints standard for the NHS and Government bodies”.
The PACAC meanwhile repeated calls from previous years’ reports for the Government to bring forward legislation to reform the Ombudsman.
The lack of action from the Government since the publication of the Draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill six years ago was, according to the committee, “as unacceptable as it is untenable in the long term.”
The committee also called on the PSHO to:
- Provide an update on actions taken to address the backlog of cases and ensure the most severe cases are handled with due haste
- Improve its communication around the decision to stop processing lower-level health complaints
- Undertake a peer review as soon as possible and on a more regular basis to ensure continued value for money
- Improve published data about feedback and performance
- Set out how it plans to take to address the three long-term, low feedback scores on its Service Charter performance areas
Chair of PACAC William Wragg MP said: “The pandemic brought about significant challenges to the work of the PHSO, with waiting times for decisions rising significantly. We will be looking for signs that efforts set out by the Ombudsman to tackle the backlog translate into an improved experience for complainants.”
“In the long-term, the Government must take seriously the issue of reform of the Ombudsman and legislate to bring it in line with international best practice, providing greater access to justice for complainants.”
The PSHO has been approached for comment.