• PHSO described as providing value for money and “in recovery” after previous organisational crisis
  • Ombudsman will seek regulatory powers to deliver consistent NHS complaints processes
  • Independent review calls for reforms to legislation to help PHSO deliver improvements

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman is to seek regulatory powers to help deliver a consistent NHS complaints service as a new report says the watchdog is “in recovery” after a period of crisis.

In an interview with HSJ, ombudsman Rob Behrens said he would be arguing for changes to the PHSO’s powers to allow him to launch investigations without a formal complaint and for the PHSO to become a complaints standards authority with regulatory powers over the NHS.

His comments come as the PHSO published an independent review of the ombudsman. This concluded Mr Behrens and his team have significantly improved the organisation since it was plunged into crisis following the resignation of the former ombudsman Dame Julie Mellor and her deputy Mick Martin.

The report, chaired by Republic of Ireland ombudsman Peter Tyndall, has been published today and found the PHSO is “becoming an efficient and effective modern ombudsman service, which provides significant value for its stakeholders”.

It said: “This report concludes that, under its current leadership, the organisation is moving out of ‘critical care’ and into ‘recovery’.”

While the panel behind the report praised Mr Behrens’ leadership and the reforms in place as part of a three year strategy, it added the PHSO was “stuck in time” due to its outdated legislation which “currently limits its ability to do more in terms of improving public services”.

It continued: “The PHSO is now out of line with other UK public services ombudsman offices and wider international practice in this regard.”

Issues highlighted in the review included complaints having to come via MPs, the lack of an integrated jurisdiction across public services and the PHSO’s inability to launch its own investigations without complaints. Plans for a public service ombudsman have been on hold since the Brexit referendum, with the government’s slim majority in Parliament exacerbating the delay.

Mr Behrens told HSJ the report was “endlessly constructive” and a valuable assessment of the progress made in the past 18 months.

However, he added: “There is nothing to be complacent about. We have begun a three year change process and we are nowhere near completed and have a lot to do to get where we need to be.”

On the changes he wanted to see to the PHSO’s powers, Mr Behrens said: “If we became a complaints standard authority, as is the case with the Scottish ombudsman, then we could have an element of regulatory power in telling bodies in jurisdiction they have to improve their complaint handling using a framework we set out.

“I am careful about asking for regulatory powers but, in this case, having looked at Scotland, it does work, and it would enable us to regularise complaints handling in the NHS. I am going to argue for that.”

He told HSJ changes would be developed “in partnership” with trusts, but that regulatory powers would be there to use against the minority of “recalcitrant organisations”.

“I don’t have to be a regulator to get this process going. The ombudsman has no regulatory powers but still exercises authority. This is not a huge change. It’s not absolutely necessary but we should carefully consider it,” he said.

Mr Behrens said the PHSO was lagging behind European ombudsman services, adding: “It’s widely recognised the legislation is outdated and too formal in its approach. Lagging behind others is not where England should be.

“My colleagues in Europe cannot believe we don’t have own initiative powers. Most have them and it is regarded as routine. It enables investigations where people can’t make a complaint or feel they may be victimised if they do. That is not acceptable in the modern age.”

He said an example of where such an approach would have been helpful was the recent Windrush immigration scandal at the Home Office.