The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Nick Bennett, explores the need for changes to his office proposed in draft legislation.
It’s an interesting time to be involved in administrative justice in Wales, with a new Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Bill having been recently introduced by the Finance Committee of the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government issuing a White Paper proposing to replace the Welsh Language Commissioner with a Commission and to reform complaint handling.
There are now more than 150 ombudsman institutions across the world, and while there has been a broadening of definition, its key role has effectively remained the same – putting things right for those that it serves as a defender of the citizen. Moreover, the diversity of the development of schemes increases the scope for new areas of best practice and increases the potential of networks to ensure that new learning cross-pollinates.
That’s why, less than a year since we held a joint Ombudsman Association/International Ombudsman Institute event at Aberystwyth University, I am delighted that Simon Thomas, Assembly Member and Chair of the Assembly’s Finance Committee, has this month introduced a new PSOW Bill. My office continues to receive a growing number of complaints at a time when our public services face immense strain. Austerity, an ageing society and heightened expectations are all contributing factors. Over the past five years complaints and enquiries to my office have increased 105%, while health complaints have escalated 126% during the same timeframe.
I believe my office can be used as a vehicle for change, taking the lessons from complaints to help drive up standards of public service delivery and corporate culture. New legislation can help. The Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Act 2005 is celebrated as best practice in the ombudsman world – finding the right mix of independence, impartiality and clear accountability – but communities across Wales face new challenges and we need to be equipped to address those.
The new Bill proposes giving my office own-initiative powers – something which is common around the world but is only starting to come into use in the British Isles (most recently Northern Ireland). This is a power normally used sparingly to investigate where there is an obvious problem but no complaint has come forward, or to extend an investigation into a complaint where there is likely to be a systemic failure, or which is affecting other people than just the complainant.
The Ombudsman in the Republic of Ireland undertook five own-initiative reviews between 2001 and 2010 on issues ranging from tax refunds to widows, refuse collection charges and the rights to nursing home care for elderly people.
I see own-initiative powers as an opportunity to empower the most vulnerable in our society: older people who may have lost sensory abilities; homeless people who do not have access to a phone or computer; or in some cases people who are just too scared to give a name.
Accessibility and equalities
While I’ve praised the current legislation for its governance template, there is one part that I have always felt uncomfortable about, and that is the requirement that all complaints should be made in writing. The draft legislation proposes that my office would no longer be required to use discretion and would be able to prescribe in guidance the ways in which complaints can be made, including orally.
I see social justice as part of the internal fabric of my office, and it is therefore paramount that our service is accessible to all – regardless of any user’s personal circumstances or literacy levels. My Complaints Advice Team does a fantastic job in processing the vast array of complaints that arrives at our office daily. If a person is unable to put a complaint in writing, the team will record the details and send it back to the person for agreement. It is the complainant’s responsibility to check, sign and return the form. Worryingly, only 50% of these complaints are ever returned, so the removal of this bureaucratic obstacle is a priority for me.
The Explanatory Memorandum on the draft Bill explain that removing the requirement to make a complaint in writing helps to ‘future proof’ access to my office and allows us to respond to future developments, such as the changing nature of electronic communication and advances in technology.
The new Bill also looks at how we collect data on complaints in Wales. There is an active debate in Wales at the moment on how we collect, collate and analyse data on public services, and new legislation presents a unique opportunity for doing this.
In Scotland, legislation was passed to allow the Ombudsman to take on the role of a Complaints Standards Authority. Behind the admittedly grandiose title is a hugely effective unit that provides comparable data across the public sector – something that is lacking here and which could drive up performance.
Currently my jurisdiction does not include private healthcare, unless it was commissioned by the NHS. I want reform so that if a patient chooses to be treated in both public and private sectors, the complaints process follows the citizen’s journey..
Welsh Language Commissioner
The Welsh Government recently released a White Paper consulting on proposals to replace the Welsh Language Commissioner with a Commission and to reform the handling of complaints relating to the provision of services in the Welsh language. As I have previously stated, it is a matter for the Welsh Government to decide whether it is appropriate to bring language promotion and regulation together. However, I believe that complaint handling should follow arrangements of other devolved fields, ensuring that complaints are not investigated by Government, or by Government appointees, but by a wholly independent body. This helps to maintain public confidence in the complaint handling process. My office has responded to this consultation and you can read it here.
The case for change is a simple one really; so that our office can do the best it can for the public service users of Wales, and to make sure that we have genuinely citizen-centred services in Wales. As the recent OECD study of the NHS concluded: ‘without patient choice there must be patient voice’. That should be the mantra for all our public services.
About the author:
Nick Bennett was appointed Public Services Ombudsman for Wales in August 2014. He was previously Chief Executive of Community Housing Cymru and was Special Adviser to the Welsh Deputy First Minister between 2000 and 2002. A former member of the All Wales Convention, the ‘Williams Commission’ or Public Services Commission for Wales and the Welsh Language Board, he is currently Chair of the Ombudsman Association.
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