MPs concerned by ‘backlog’ of complaints over NHS and Government services

The issue has been attributed to the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic, according to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC)

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MPs are concerned about a “significant backlog” at the independent body acting as the “last resort” for individuals’ complaints about NHS and Government services, a new report warns.

The issue has been attributed to the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic, according to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC).

The findings were published in a report on the performance of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) from 2020-2021.

As of March 2021, the PHSO faced an unallocated backlog of over 3,000 cases, the committee found.

It cited the ombudsman’s annual report as saying the impact of the pandemic on the NHS and its own staff “resulted in a queue of cases waiting to be considered at the end of year”.

To address the problem, the PHSO is aiming to improve efficiency, as well as requesting extra resources to boost the number of case workers, the report said.

As of March 2021, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman faced an unallocated backlog of over 3,000 cases.
As of March 2021, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman faced an unallocated backlog of over 3,000 cases.

Following a successful spending review bid, this additional funding is expected to be available from 2022–23 onwards, it added.

The PHSO also took the decision to stop processing lower-level health complaints.

But MPs on the committee said they “remain concerned” about the impact of delays on those using the ombudsman’s services.

In 2020–21, the PHSO’s responsiveness to complainants following “further consideration” declined against its 2019–20 performance, and failed to meet its targets, the report said.

However cases decided following “initial checks” performed much more strongly.

The pandemic gave the PHSO 'significant challenges,' said Conservative MP William Wragg.
The pandemic gave the PHSO 'significant challenges,' said Conservative MP William Wragg.

Evidence supplied by the PHSO attributed this trend to various factors, the committee said, including the NHS and Government departments struggling to contribute to investigations due to the pandemic, and complications arising from home working.

The PACAC reiterated calls for the Government to bring forward legislation to reform the ombudsman, arguing the lack of action since the publication of the Draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill six years ago is “as unacceptable as it is untenable in the long term”.

William Wragg, Tory MP for Hazel Grove and PACAC chairman, 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.

THE PHSO have welcomed a call for legislative reform.
THE PHSO have welcomed a call for legislative reform.

“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.

“We want to thank everyone who has shared their experiences with us for this inquiry and look forward to continuing to working positively and constructively with the PHSO to improve the vital public service it provides.”

The PHSO said, like many organisations, it had not been “immune to the impact of the pandemic”.

A spokesperson said: “The committee has acknowledged that the strain placed on the NHS also had consequences for the length of time we take to process complaints.

“Our development and introduction of the NHS complaint standards during the past year aims to support organisations to provide quicker, simpler, and more streamlined complaint-handling services.

“Alongside the improvements we continue to make to our service, this will help us to tackle the backlog which resulted from the pandemic and to improve the time a complainant waits for a decision.

“We are committed to addressing these issues as we continue our journey to become a leading ombudsman service, notwithstanding the fact that demand for our service is now significantly above pre-pandemic levels.”

They added: “We welcome the committee’s call for legislative reform of PHSO.

“We believe this is vital in delivering improved public services and will bring us in line with international best practice.”