The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has declared herself “absolutely” satisfied that her office can properly handle complaints about patient deaths following a series of internal reforms.
Dame Julie Mellor told HSJ that the watchdog had learned the lessons from its involvement in events at Morecambe Bay Foundation Trust.
Its original decision in 2010 not to investigate complaints relating to maternal and infant deaths at the trust was “not a decision that we would make today”, she said.
Dame Julie’s comments are made in an interview with HSJ in the week she faced difficult questions at the Health Committee’s inquiry into the NHS complaints system.
Committee members were this week told in an e-mail by James Titcombe, the Care Quality Commission’s national adviser on patient safety whose son Joshua died at the trust in 2008, that he intended to legally challenge the ombudsman’s refusal to review decisions made by her predecessor.
Mr Titcombe was informed of the refusal in a letter from the ombudsman last week.
Dame Julie told HSJ in an interview before the e-mail was sent that she had “apologised to James and his family about the impact of the decision not to investigate in 2010”.
She pointed out that this decision had been taken “before my time” and that “it may have been if we’d investigated earlier the family might have had answers earlier”.
“It’s not a decision that we would make today,” she added.
Dame Julie also told HSJ about the ombudsman’s work to develop a common standard for the handling of health and social care complaints.
Reforming the NHS complaints system was one of the key priorities of Hard Truths – the government’s formal response to the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust inquiry.
As part of this work, the ombudsman agreed to develop “a consumer-led view of what a good [complaints] experience looks like”, she said.
This would enable providers to compare complaints handling performance.
“Because you can survey people, it’s measurable, so it should be what services are using to judge their own effectiveness.
“It can also be used for services to be held to account for complaints handling by commissioners of those services and by the regulators,” she added.
Dame Julie welcomed the recent recommendation from the public administration select committee that her organisation should be merged with the Local Government Ombudsman to create a single “people’s ombudsman”.
This latter organisation currently deals with social care complaints.
“The legislation governing the way we and the LGO work is not helpful for consumers and I agree with [the committee’s] analysis that the scheme is out of date,” she said.
When questioned whether Dame Julie was interested in becoming the first people’s ombudsman, a spokeswoman said it was “a matter for parliament” to decide what the single service would look like.