Nick Bennett says legislation should be passed to improve the role of the Public Services Ombudsman in Wales.
It was in Sweden, more than 200 years ago that the term Ombudsman – meaning “representative” or “agent” – was first used.
The Swedish Parliament established the office of Justitieombudsman in 1809 to safeguard justice and the rights of the citizen.
Fast forward to the present day, and 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.
Here in Wales, 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.
I’m glad to have had the support of the Assembly’s Finance Committee, which conducted an extensive inquiry into further powers, and a draft bill has now been published.
As Ombudsman legislation in other parts of the UK has progressed to adapt to the ever-changing needs of those it serves, our legislation has remained static.
A new bill would give 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.
While I’ve praised the original legislation that my office uses as 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.
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. The removal of this bureaucratic obstacle is a priority for me especially when in Wales literacy levels lag 10% behind the UK average.
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.
A statutory streamlined complaint procedure would capture directly comparable data across Wales, driving 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.
The case for change is a simple one really; so that our office can do the best it can for the people 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.