The National Audit Office is considering carrying out an inquiry into the NHS complaints system following concerns about the steep rise in the number of grievances referred to the Healthcare Commission.

The National Audit Office is considering carrying out an inquiry into the NHS complaints system following concerns about the steep rise in the number of grievances referred to the Healthcare Commission.

In a letter to Conservative MP Richard Bacon, the head of the NAO Sir John Bourn said that it was currently 'scoping' a study on the NHS complaints system as part of its strategic planning exercise.

He wrote: 'At this stage details on the precise nature of the proposed study are still to be determined, but the Healthcare Commission's role in the second stage of the NHS complaints system would inevitably need to form part of the examination.'

Sir John was responding to concerns raised by Mr Bacon about the costs of running the second stage of the complaints system, and whether it would be a suitable subject for an NAO investigation.

When the Healthcare Commission began its work in July 2004, it estimated that it would receive between 3,500 and 5,000 review requests a year, but by the end of June this year, it had received 15,460 requests in just under two years. As previously revealed in HSJ, this has led to long delays in dealing with reviews of complaints.

The commission also referred 31 per cent of cases back to the original trust in 2005-06, because it felt they had not been adequately investigated.

A commission spokesperson said: 'We have increased the numbers of complaints-handling staff from just over 20 to more than 150 and streamlined our system to handle more cases more quickly.

'But it is not just about gearing up our systems, important though that is. There are deficiencies in NHS complaints-handling more broadly, which means we refer one-third of cases back to local organisations for further action.

'In response, we will make good complaints-handling a key part of the NHS performance ratings for next year.'

The commission will also publish its first annual report on its reviews of complaints in the next few months. It will identify common themes from 10,000 cases and will help trusts to avoid the 'common pitfalls' which lead to complaints, she said.