Marking Their Own Homework


What an outcry there was about MPs ‘marking their own homework’. Georgia Graham and Padraic Flanagan reported in the Telegraph 9th April the words of John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw who instigated the complaint against Maria Miller.

“There are very few people outside the club of the House of Commons who believe that MPs should still be regulating themselves. The rest of the country has very firm views on that, and I share that view,” Mr Mann told Radio 4’s Today programme.

There was indeed general outrage that MPs were able to regulate themselves and surely that outrage should apply to all other government bodies.  If you have never made a complaint you may be surprised to learn of the amount of self-regulation which actually occurs.  On paper it may look as though organisations work in a hierarchical structure, each one being accountable to the independent body above.  However, when you escalate your complaint you are likely to find that no matter the content your particular concern it will be ‘outside their remit’ and they promptly send you back to the perpetrators of the original injustice for resolution.

You can of course submit an appeal if you think your complaint has not been handled correctly and each organisation has their own appeals process.   They simply slide your paperwork over to the person at the next desk who finds that everything was handled appropriately before they both pop out to lunch.  All the regulatory bodies work in this closed, circular fashion and at the top of the league table for self regulation you will find The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

Self regulation is enshrined in the Health Ombudsman’s statutory obligations as shown by this statement from the Ombudsman’ job description:

“The Ombudsman is solely responsible and accountable for the conduct and administration of all work carried out by the Office and for the decisions made in each case. Decisions of the Ombudsman may be judicially reviewed by application to the courts.”  (Pre-appointment hearing for the post of Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman – Public Administration Committee   Appendix 4.)

If you think that judicial review is outside your price range you may prefer to make a complaint about poor service delivery from the Health Service Ombudsman. The Cabinet Office have that one covered.

Complaints about the Ombudsman

The Ombudsman maintains a complaints procedure which gives guidance on how to complain to her if complainants are dissatisfied with the service provided by her office.  The Cabinet Office, the Treasury and the Department of Health have no locus in such complaints which are matters for the Ombudsman herself, and ultimately for the courts and/or Parliament as appropriate.

Complaints are a matter for the Ombudsman herself’  a  green light from the Cabinet Office for the Ombudsman to ‘mark her own homework’ and hold herself to account.  The Cabinet Office have not been able to determine the meaning of ‘or Parliament as appropriate’ because this is a meaningless statement.  The Health Service Ombudsman is not accountable to Parliament either.  This Lone Ranger at the apex of the complaint system is as accountable as Kim-Jong un, Supreme Leader of North Korea.

Ombudsman Complaints ProcedureToo harsh, I hear you say.  Well for a start only one case has ever been upheld against them at judicial review.  Not good odds.

In relation to complaints, the Health Service Ombudsman handle them internally through the Review Team.  The Head of the Review team, Suzannah Beazley is regularly called upon to organise complaints about herself and other members of the  team.  So how many times does she give her staff ten out of ten?

Amiee Gasston a data officer at PHSO recently gave the following answer to a FOI request on complaint handling.

“I have manually searched through the data we hold relating to service complaints received in 2012, and have concluded that we received 73 complaints about individual members of staff. Of these, 6 were upheld in full and 8 were upheld in part. 3 complaints were withdrawn and 56 complaints were not upheld.”

By marking their own homework PHSO fail to uphold 76% of complaints made against staff members and if you take out the 3 withdrawn cases, which were presumably never investigated, the percentage comes to pleasingly round 80%.

What Amiee failed to address was that in the year 2012 there were actually 440 service complaints broken into categories.  This information was in an attachment.  It is not clear how many of these complaints were upheld, but I think it safe to go with the same ratio of 80/20 against.

So what sort of things do people complain about?

If you have ever used the Ombudsman service you will not be surprised by any of the items on this list.

  • 34 people complained that PHSO failed to address every aspect of their complaint.
  • 34 complained that the decision was expressed unclearly in the decision letter.
  • 60 said there were spelling/typographical/factual errors in the decision letter.
  • 18 complained there was no contact with complainant.
  • 42 people said there was a poor audit trail on VF  (Visual Files)
  • 20 found that PHSO misinterpreted evidence and 28 that they failed to understand the complaint.
  • 25 complained that PHSO failed to coordinate with other bodies.
  • 39 said that PHSO failed to follow guidance and 11 that the response was not evidence based.

Perhaps 2012 was a particularly difficult year, they were after all in ‘transition’. If we look at the figures for 2011, there were 316 complaints made and all the usual suspects appear;  48 – failure to address every aspect of the case, 33 – decision letter expressed unclearly, 54 – factual errors …..


But then of course you can’t learn any lessons while you continually find yourself free from error and so the sorry saga goes on and all at the taxpayer’s expense.