HC Deb 19 October 1999 vol 336 cc326-51

[Relevant documents: The First Report from the Select Committee on Public Administration, Session 1998–99, Report of the Parliamentary Ombudsman for 1997–98 (HC 136); the Second Report from the Select Committee on Public Administration, Session 1998–99, Annual Report of the Health Service Ombudsman for 1997–98 (HC 54); the Second Report from the Select Committee on Public Administration, Session 1997–98, Report of the Health Service Ombudsman for 1996–97 (HC 352), and the Government's response thereto (HC 1055 of Session 1997–98).]

8.16 pm
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

While listening to the previous debate—and to other exchanges across the Floor of the House—it occurred to me that there might be a case for having a statistical ombudsman to test some of the claims that are made. Perhaps the new statistics commission could spawn an ombudsman's arm to which we could send some of the disputed figures. However, I doubt whether we shall see that.

It is a great pleasure to introduce these reports from the Select Committee on Public Administration. The House will be aware that these are not the reports that have been wholly taking the Committee's attention recently, as much of its recent work has been concerned with looking at the draft Freedom of Information Bill. I am told that the Government are tomorrow to give their response to our deliberations, and we will look with interest at what they say following our extensive labours on that front.

It is a pleasure to introduce the reports and to invite the House to consider—albeit for a short time—the work of the ombudsmen and the work of the Select Committee in relation to them. However, it is also a source of regret—even shame—for the House that there has been no debate on the work of the ombudsmen in this Parliament; indeed, there has been no such debate since 1994. That is a source of shame, because I am referring to an institution or instrument devised by Parliament; I am talking about Parliament's instrument to hold the Executive to administrative account. Because of that, an analysis of and debate on the work of the ombudsmen through the Select Committee would give the House an opportunity to engage in some serious scrutiny of the work of Departments as monitored by the complaints that have come the way of the ombudsmen, and then been reported to the Select Committee.

It strikes me as ironic—even tragic—that the only people who come to these debates are my esteemed colleagues on the Committee. The people who should come are those who want to use the reports of the ombudsmen and of the Select Committee to interrogate Departments, which is what those reports enable them to do.

It is a source of great regret that the House does not have even an annual debate on the work of its own instrument. We should have an annual opportunity to engage in such interrogation. The House has an annual debate on the work of the Public Accounts Committee. It would be right and proper for us to have a similar annual debate on the work of the ombudsmen, as reported through the Public Administration Committee.

When my hon. Friend the Minister replies to the debate, he will be in the fortunate position of being able to tell us that there is a review of the work of the ombudsmen and another on how the new NHS complaints system is working. It is a good pitch for a Minister to be on, because he can call in aid at least two reviews.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

For the sake of correctness, we are conducting an evaluation rather than a review of the NHS complaints procedure. We want to look at what is happening, build on success and identify the difficulties.

Dr. Wright

I was fearful for a moment that my hon. Friend's intervention was going to be rather more serious. However, I am glad to accept that we should be talking about an evaluation of the NHS complaints system, which has serious problems, as evidenced by an initial study. Hon. Members may want to say more about that later.

My serious point was that, although my hon. Friend can rightly call in aid the review and evaluation, it goes closer to his responsibility to say something to the House about why there is no annual opportunity to consider the work of the ombudsmen—an institution that was created by the House to do a particular job.

When I was thinking about the debate, I had a slight flight of fancy. Would it not be extraordinary if this year, with the Queen's Speech coming in a few weeks, the Government decided not to do the usual thing of announcing a raft of new legislation, but to spend the year trying to evaluate how well existing laws were working?

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Marvellous idea.

Dr. Wright

I know that it is an outrageously splendid idea. The House is extraordinarily good at processing legislation. We assume that, as one year follows the last, another raft of new legislation will be processed. However, the House is very bad at evaluating—to use the Minister's word—how well the legislation and the administration of it is working. Through the ombudsmen and our audit and inspection regimes, the House could begin to look seriously at how the Government are working and how well existing legislation is being implemented, rather than always taking the more exciting course of introducing more. That is a deficiency in the operation of the House. The ombudsmen and the Select Committee give the House an opportunity to engage in that.

The ombudsman is a peculiarly British invention, although it is not a British word. There are more ombudsmen in this country than anywhere else. We may have borrowed the idea initially, but my goodness, we have run with it, developed it and proved its worth. We do not have a system of administrative courts. The ombudsman is a peculiarly British way of handling redress in relation to the state and public services.

Thirty years ago, there were great doubts about whether Parliament should set up the institution. The Conservative Opposition of the day, led in splendid form by Quintin Hogg, were very much against it. They argued that it would undermine Parliament, whose job it was to engage in redress of grievance, and that it would be improper for another institution to take on that role. That sounds quaint in the era of citizens charters and all the rest. It may just mean that it takes the Conservatives 30 years to catch up with developments. Who knows, perhaps they will be raving Euro-fanatics in 30 years. It was a curious and revealing argument at the time, because although it was a proper constitutional point, it was nonsense and would have deprived the citizen of the opportunity to acquire a new device for seeking redress against administrative actions.

The system was set up in an interesting and distinctively British way, with odd terms that no one understood, such as maladministration. The ombudsmen were supposed to seek out injustices consequent on maladministration. They worked away at the framework that Parliament had given them to produce a highly effective instrument on behalf of the citizen. It bedded down and has been extended over the years. In the early 1970s, it was extended into the health service ombudsman scheme. In 1994, the ombudsman was given responsibility for the operation of the code of practice and access to Government information. In 1996 clinical complaints in the health service as well as the family health service were added to the health service commissioner's responsibilities.

The story is one of growth and development—and success. Thousands of citizens have had redress for maladministration because of the ombudsman scheme. They would not have had the opportunity otherwise, and the House should celebrate that.

The other feature of the scheme is that it has been a means whereby administration has been tested, and has had to account for itself and hopefully improve itself, too. There are administrative audit and performance monitoring functions as well. The ombudsman's activities in relation to disability living allowance some years ago, and more recently in relation to the Child Support Agency, were celebrated because they exposed the deficiency of the regimes, enabling people to secure justice and reforming the systems because of what the complaints had highlighted.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that great as those successes have been, they have not affected enough people? Many people's experience of ombudsmen is rejection at the first hurdle, and they could have been a far greater success had they taken on more cases.

Dr. Wright

I shall mention one or two of the problems, and my colleagues on the Committee will probably also wish to address those points. For the moment, I wish to emphasise the positive side of the story. To illustrate that in easy and personal terms, I have a constituent who took a complaint to the health service ombudsman. I noticed that the complaint was being examined by the Committee—I was not a member at the time—and asked my constituent if he wished to come here for the day to witness the Committee interrogating the health trust and health authority which were the origin of his complaint. He did so, and came out blinking in disbelief that his small, individual complaint had resulted in a Committee of Members of Parliament grilling health chiefs about how it could have happened. His regard for this institution increased immeasurably because of what he saw those Members of Parliament doing on that occasion.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

We celebrate the achievements of the ombudsmen as a sharp and piercing instrument of investigation", as Richard Crossman called them in 1976, and which he bequeathed to us. However, does my hon. Friend agree that one problem of the current system is its complexity and the number of ombudsmen who exist? That militates against citizens understanding the system, leading to fewer referrals, especially to the parliamentary ombudsman. Is not that a cause for concern?

Dr. Wright

My hon. Friend's point about complexity and how many ombudsmen we now have gives me an opportunity to advertise my book. When I tried a few years ago to put together a little guide to the various complaints mechanisms that existed, I thought I would produce—at first for my own benefit—a modest little booklet. It ended up as a 400-page book—unavailable, I might say, from all good bookshops—about how complaints could be made. In the past year, the National Consumer Council produced an A to Z of ombudsmen and it described more than 20 schemes in the public and private sectors, all described as ombudsmen schemes. My hon. Friend is right to question whether that explosion of such schemes, or ombudsmania as it is sometimes called, produces its own difficulties.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman's cogent speech with great interest. He is obviously very knowledgeable on the subject. Has his Committee considered the inconsistency between the positions of the local government ombudsman and the parliamentary ombudsman? Any citizen can complain to the local government ombudsman directly, but complaints to the parliamentary ombudsman have to be made through a Member of Parliament. Individual Members of Parliament will have different standards about which complaints are referred and, for a vast chunk of Government policy, the individual citizen cannot be sure whether his complaint will be referred.

Dr. Wright

That is a fascinating question to which I could give a long and fascinating answer. Perhaps other hon. Members will wish to contribute on that point. The short answer is that Parliament was most insistent when it set up this scheme that it wanted to retain control through what is called the filter—the Member of Parliament acting as the gatekeeper of the system. My view has been that it is difficult to sustain that because we have direct access now to the health service ombudsman, let alone the local government ombudsman. That is a real inconsistency and although I can understand Parliament's intention at the time, we have moved on since.

Sir Patrick Cormack

In the debate in December 1994, the hon. Gentleman was forthright in saying that the filter should go. He now seems to be equivocating a little. Has he changed his mind now that he has the chairmanship of the Committee?

Dr. Wright

I confess to my neighbour and friend that I have been waiting for responsibility to change my mind on all kinds of issues, but it has not yet happened. It has not happened on this issue either. I thought that I was making it clear that I considered it impossible to sustain an argument for indirect access when that is contradictory across the ombudsman system. The ombudsmen themselves have expressed the view frequently that such access was no longer applicable, but the House has insisted on it in the past.

Currently, another survey of hon. Members is being held, covering that and other issues. I am sure that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) has replied to it. All the replies will soon be collated, and we shall then know whether the present House of Commons believes that the filter should stay or go.

The success of what was seen as an innovation in 1967 has to a great extent turned on the character of the individual occupants of the ombudsman's office. I should like to take to this opportunity to state that I consider that Sir William Reid, who held that office between 1990 and 1996, provided a benchmark for performance in the role. That assessment is widely shared by people who knew him at close quarters, and by people in the outside world who used his services. This House has cause to be extremely grateful for his tenure in office. He set a standard for others to follow.

Given the importance of getting the right person in post, and the moves to extend the role of Parliament, it would be right for Parliament—perhaps through the appropriate Select Committee—to have a direct role in the appointment of a person who is the servant and instrument of the House. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reflect on that and respond at the end of the debate.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Surely there is an inconsistency in the hon. Gentleman's argument. If the filter is to go, the parliamentary part of the ombudsman's title must also go, as must the degree of accountability to Parliament. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. It is possible to make a perfectly logical case for one alternative or t'other, but it seems to me to be difficult to make an equally logical case for both at the same time.

Dr. Wright

It may be that added responsibility, although it has not changed my views, has added to my store of contradictions. However, we must wrestle with such matters as we consider the review that is now under way.

So successful has the ombudsman system proved that it has been much emulated. There has been a proliferation of complaints bodies and ombudspeople everywhere. Indeed, I think that more are needed. I mentioned a statistics ombudsman, but we also need a rail ombudsman to sort out the fragmentation of redress and complaints machineries in the rail industry. We need, too, a utilities ombudsman to sort out the difficulties encountered in complaining about some of the utilities.

I believe that we have further to go in developing the ombudsman idea. The point about that idea is that it is independent, rigorous and free. It should also be easy to access. Given the worry about the growth of litigation, especially in the health service, we should pay special regard to an institution that has all the merits that I have listed, and none of the deficiencies of systems involving courts and lawyers. That is worth thinking about in connection with the present evaluation of the NHS complaints system.

However, I am sure that some elements of the system will occasion comment today. They include the questions of indirect access that have been raised already, as well as matters to do with the time taken by investigations, and the need to achieve a balance between finding redress for complainants and achieving an appropriately thorough investigation.

In addition, bodies covered by the ombudsman at present must be explicitly included in the schedules to the relevant legislation. The alternative method would be for the ombudsman service to cover all public bodies except those that are specifically excluded. I have always believed that matters should be arranged that way around. The Government, to their credit, have recently included many more public bodies, but the principle is still wrong.

Even more important issues arise over the connections between the parliamentary ombudsman, the health service ombudsman and all the other ombudsmen and adjudicator schemes that have developed in the public and private sectors. It is time to review what some would call diversity, but what others would call a mess. The review's purpose should be to see how we guarantee the integrity of ombudsman schemes.

If something is called an ombudsman scheme, it must have the characteristics that I have identified. How can we clarify and ease access to schemes, making it easy for citizens to use them? How do we achieve co-ordination between different schemes so that citizens can have complaints pursued, even if they cross boundaries? The example often cited is the boundary between health and social services, but there may be others.

If we must talk about joined-up Government—some people do not like that phrase; I do not much like it either—we must discuss joined-up redress as well. Government and the organisation of government are, for all kinds of reasons—usually good—becoming increasingly fragmented. Contracting out enables authorities to put other people in place to deliver services, for example. Fragmentation makes it more crucial that the means of complaint and redress should be simple and seamless. People should not need to understand the intricacies of boundary disputes to be able to have a complaint followed all the way through the system and to receive redress.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's courtesy in giving way once again. Does he expect it to be the norm that where the ombudsman makes a recommendation, the Department involved should follow it? If that is not so, there seems little point in having an ombudsman. In a recent constituency case—which I accept is not quite in the same area—Ofwat made a recommendation that Thames Water refused to follow. Would that not make a nonsense of the whole ombudsman system?

Dr. Wright

Almost certainly it would. However, I have said that the ombudsman system is a distinctively British invention. One of the things that makes it distinctive is that the ombudsman does not have the power to command Departments to do what he says they ought to do in redress, but, because this is Britain, Departments always do it. There is a convention that that should happen, and if Departments do not abide by it, they are marched before the Public Administration Committee and given a good talking to. Other people do these things more formally, but that is how we do them.

The Queen's Speech will not, of course, take up my recommendation of a year of rigorous administrative review. However, Parliament can ensure that we use the instrument that we have created both to give redress to citizens and to keep an eye on how government is working. That is what the ombudsman does, and that is what the Public Administration Committee's reports on the work of the ombudsman enable the House to do.

8.44 pm
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

I am delighted to participate in the debate. I am a member of the Public Administration Committee, but was not a member when the proceedings and investigations took place. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who chairs the Committee, eloquently said that it was right to hold a debate on the ombudsman, and I agree that it is a shame that it has taken five years to get round to it.

The ombudsman clearly has a critical role. Ombudsmen are at the cutting edge when it comes to hearing and understanding the raw concerns of our constituents about the problems and difficulties of services. They provide a link to Westminster by which those issues may be raised. For many constituents, they also provide a final chance, after many other methods have been tried, to raise concerns. People often turn finally to the ombudsman in a great deal of frustration.

Given that the ombudsman has that critical role, it is a pity that many of my colleagues who came here in the 1997 intake have little understanding of that role and the way in which Members of Parliament should work alongside that office. That is one of the concerns that I put before the Minister tonight. When I was elected I certainly did not have a clue about what the ombudsman did—from speaking to colleagues, I know that the same was true of them. I did not know where one could get hold of papers with which to refer cases on to the ombudsman. I did not know that one had a statutory responsibility to sign the document, whatever. I certainly had no idea whether, to sign it, one had to understand and take up the merits of the case. I had little idea of whether the ombudsman had the power to do X, Y or Z.

If we are to deal with some of the issues highlighted by the report, such as the use and take up of the ombudsman, we need more education and information for some of the newer Members. Perhaps some Members who are stuck in their ways also need a little reminding of how the system works.

Mr. White

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the confusions was that one might come across two similar cases, one of which was accepted by the ombudsman and one which was not? How does one judge the right way to put forward a case? That is one of the confusions suffered by the new intake of Members in the early days.

Mr. Oaten

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. For many Members it was trial and error. Someone came to the surgery with a case and I seemed to remember that six months before I had got away with it and the ombudsman had accepted a similar case, so I thought that I might do so again. Having a simple list next to one at surgery, showing which cases can and cannot be referred, would be a starting point.

That brings me to what is being called the Member of Parliament's filter. If Members are not clear how it works, then we must ask serious questions about that filter. I have taken a particular view—I am sure that my colleagues have taken different views. I do not want to act as a filter. I am not going to judge individual cases. A constituent has the right to take a case forward to whatever level he or she chooses. I do not want to have to judge the case. If a Member's filter means making that judgment, I am not interested and I do not want to take part in that process. If we are saying that the filter means that one is advising a constituent whether the case is legitimate and can be taken forward or whether there is a better process, clearly the Member has a role to play there.

Sir Patrick Cormack

As I said earlier, the hon. Gentleman must accept the fact that when the ombudsman was established he was—to use the words of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)—to be a parliamentary instrument. The ombudsman was to be someone who would enable us to do our jobs more effectively. Therefore, if we take out the filter, as it is generally called, we change fundamentally the conception of the job. That may or may not be the right thing to do, but one must accept that it is a fundamental change.

Mr. Oaten

Bluntly, our difficulty with the system is that we cannot do our job effectively because the right number of cases is not getting through to the ombudsman, as the filter is not working. Perversely, a system that we put in place to build in links with Westminster and get information through to the Floor of the House is causing the problem in the first place. The filter is adding a blockage to the system. If we want it to work properly, we need to remove that filter. I see no reason why a strong ombudsman should not be able to bring issues to Select Committees and to the Floor of the House, but without the filter system. That would increase the number of cases that come through.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

The burden of what the hon. Gentleman seems to be saying is that parliamentary accountability and a Member's filter are not synonymous and that there are many better ways to ensure that ombudsmen are accountable to this House, perhaps through involvement in their appointment, and through regular reports and debates on the Floor of the House, while still giving individual citizens access to the ombudsman as of right and without hindrance. Would the hon. Gentleman agree?

Mr. Oaten

The hon. Lady makes the point that I have been struggling to make for the past minute far better than I could.

The critical issue is that we get the information about what is going wrong with the system. How it comes to us does not matter a great deal. What should matter is that we know that it is coming to us in large amounts in the right areas. The filter has become an irrelevance to making that process work.

My experience as a Member of Parliament has surprised me. I regard myself as a busy MP; I have been accused of spending far too much time in my constituency. Like most colleagues, I get 500 or so letters a week and I am surprised at how few cases come from constituents asking me to refer their cases to the ombudsman. That brings me to my second concern, which is a point that was well made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase. The lack arises not because people do not have problems but because they do not have a clue about how ombudsmen work. The whole system is a complete confusion to ordinary folk.

There is a maze of different complaint systems and organisations. We have ombudsman fatigue. I was alarmed when the hon. Member for Cannock Chase suggested adding ombudsmen, although he may have been jesting. Beyond that, we have the Audit Commission, district auditors and local government ombudsmen. The citizens charter introduced endless different sorts of ombudsmen. Those are only some of the people and organisations involved: we have Ofthis and Ofthat. On top of that, organisations such as Ofsted, the Highways Agency and—very properly—the Child Support Agency have created their own departments to manage complaints. Devolution in Scotland and Wales has added different tiers. We also have parish, local and county councillors and Members of Parliament. The book by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase may not be available but it should be compulsory reading for constituents.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Has the hon. Gentleman read it?

Mr. Oaten

I have not, but I need a copy. I shall get an unsigned copy because I am sure that they are more valuable.

The systems may well work and have been added to over the years. If we looked at them on paper, I am sure that we would see a great logical interaction but they do not work in the real world for real people. I am pleased that the Government are considering reviewing the ombudsman system, but I hope that they will be ambitious and go beyond ombudsmen to consider the whole range of other organisations to which people can complain.

Another problem is the terms that we use. The ombudsman is a very British thing that was created years ago but it is a title that means little to people these days. In reality, people see things such as "Watchdog" on television. I do not suggest that we call everything "The Roger Cook Team", but these days people are much more engaged in complaining to television programmes. That is the way things are moving. I suggest that we consider the names of such organisations and try to get user-friendly names that mean something to people.

I used to advise the Audit Commission on public relations. When we talked to the press or anyone else, people would glaze over when we said that our client was the Audit Commission for Local Authorities and the National Health Service in England and Wales. If we described it as the watchdog for the NHS and councils, people would come to life and understand what it did. We need to look again at these issues because our various ombudsmen are our national watchdogs. We need to start thinking in that sort of language.

Perhaps we need one big watchdog that can really bite. Imagine one organisation that led on all these issues so that the problem of to whom people should write and whether they had got the right watchdog or ombudsman was an issue not for the complainant but for the large organisation: a one-stop shop ombudsman or watchdog. That is the language that we need to use if we are to gain people's trust and make the link with Parliament. Ombudsmen and the present structures are not the way forward. There is no doubt that we also need good practice, proper public accountability and audit trails. Perhaps we need to split those functions off and have clear watchdogs with a much freer rein to act in the way I suggest.

None of that would be needed if things never went wrong in the first place. We have not yet had a chance to focus on the systems that we need to consider and the recommendations from some of the ombudsmen's reports on putting structures in place to ensure that complaints do not arise.

The findings of the health ombudsman's report certainly give cause for concern. It suggests a patchy service in key areas. Politically, it would suit me to say that, according to the ombudsman, complaints in the NHS have increased by 8 per cent. That would be a cheap and rather crude political jibe and it would not be accurate. I accept that complaints are not an accurate measurement of how a public service is going. One could argue that a large number of complaints is a good thing. It suggests that people feel able to complain about the service and that the ombudsman is doing his job. I am convinced that if we shifted to a system of watchdogs, we would have hundreds more complaints. Opposition Members would no doubt say that that proved that there had been underinvestment in health and local government. The reality would be that the public felt engaged in the process.

There are lessons in the reports for the Government and I hope that the Minister will touch briefly on them. The power that the ombudsman now has to report on clinical judgments in the NHS has taught us some interesting lessons. When the ombudsman looked into issues of administration, he found that the key problems that caused difficulties were poor keeping of medical records and lack of communication within the NHS. When he gained powers to look into clinical judgments, he found that the same two issues caused problems time and time again.

The ombudsman said that lack of record keeping not only got in the way of his job but jeopardised patient care. Time and time again, we have seen—the point was raised in the debate five years ago—that poor communications in hospitals can have a serious medical outcome. The Audit Commission—another plug for it—produced a serious report on communications in hospitals. I hope that the Minister will reflect on some of its findings. We hear much about money being pumped into the health service, but some low-cost ways of improving performance could, if we are to believe the reports, have significant outcomes in medical terms.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I rushed in as soon as my hon. Friend started speaking, so I am grateful to him for giving way. Does he accept that the experience in the health service is that it is often far better if people can complain immediately to someone very close by who can deal with their anger, frustration or dissatisfaction? If they have to leave the complaint until later and go through some bureaucratic procedure, it is often too late.

If every bit of the health service had a structure within which people received information saying, "Unhappy? Talk to person X. Ring this number now", so that they could talk there and then to someone who was not directly managing their mother, sister or child in the bed—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not be making a speech. I call Mr. Oaten.

Mr. Oaten

My hon. Friend is absolutely accurate. The first principle must be ensuring that mistakes do not happen in the first place. The second principle must be providing a local system for complaints. The third or fourth tier should be the ombudsman.

There is a good illustration of why complaints procedures will become critical. The ombudsman's report refers to litigation in the NHS. There is certainly a fear that we are turning into an American-style culture and that in future instead of going to the ombudsman, people will go to their lawyer as the first port of call. There is concern that litigation is getting out of control. I hear that the Government are looking into the question of litigation. I welcome that, but the estimates of £235 million seem set to grow in the future. I wonder whether the Minister will expand on or write to me later about how hospitals are managing that process.

I understand that hospitals make contributions to funds managed by the NHS for internal insurance against complaints and litigation. Are those funds adequate? How much does the NHS have to set aside for litigation? Is there a role for the private sector to step in and provide cheaper insurance?

I want to conclude by saying a little about the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—another complicated title. It essentially means the ombudsman who does the stuff that the health ombudsman does not do. Concerns are expressed in the report about the length of time that it takes to deal with complaints. Some of the reports say that the average time taken to deal with cases last year was 91 weeks. That is clearly unacceptable. It is good that the time is down from 100 weeks the year before, but clearly a lot more work needs to be done. The delay is of particular concern when we realise that sometimes the complaints are about the length of time that it took another organisation to help someone. It almost seems as though the ombudsman is rubbing salt into the wound by delaying that process. It greatly undermines the confidence of individuals if the people to whom they complain perform in the same poor way in relation to the problem. I am concerned that that should be looked into and that improvements should be sought.

I want to pick up on the point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, concerning those organisations that have not been brought within the remit of the ombudsman. One that especially stands out is the Student Loan Company. I have received complaints about that company and, although a vast amount of its work might not fall within the remit of the ombudsman, some administration elements would benefit from having recourse to the ombudsman.

I have focused on the negative parts of the work of the ombudsmen. They do a great deal of work, but there is frustration that that work is only the tip of the iceberg. The potential to do much more is enormous—to bring many more cases to the Floor of the House and to the Select Committee. However, we must be ambitious in developing the role of watchdogs in future. I hope that, when the review takes place, the Government will think creatively about a modern way in which we can engage with our citizens and give them confidence that, here in Westminster, we have the right systems to hear their concerns properly and democratically.

9.1 pm

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

I too welcome the opportunity to hold the debate this evening. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), my colleague on the Select Committee. Having heard what he did in a previous life, and the communication difficulties that he doubtless faced at that time, it is no wonder that, in a relatively short time, he is able to put to the House a quite fluent and coherent argument. I share the hon. Gentleman's desire for a greater awareness of the ombudsman's jurisdiction and of the role of Members of Parliament therein; I shall deal with that in more detail in a few moments.

Despite my membership of the legal profession—a qualification that I share with at least one other member of the Select Committee—I share the desire of the hon. Member for Winchester for clarity, and his concern about the growth in medical negligence litigation and the drain that that causes both on financial and on other resources of the national health service. I have some first-hand knowledge of that matter. I also share the craving for the demystification of jargon of which he spoke.

It is also a privilege to serve under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and to follow him in the debate. I have been a member of the Select Committee on Public Administration for only a few months. In common with the hon. Member for Winchester, my membership postdates the reports that we are debating—indeed, it postdates the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase. However, in that short time, I have come to realise why my hon. Friend has such a reputation in these matters. I shall say no more—[Interruption.] Shall we just call it an enviable reputation? I am in danger of talking myself into having to buy his book. Thanks to his chairmanship, to the prodigious output and the obvious skill and learning of our Clerk, and to the help of my Committee colleagues, I have learned much during the short time that I have been a member of the Select Committee. However, I take personal responsibility for the words that I shall utter tonight—they are all mine.

In 1966, Richard Crossman said that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration was established to provide the Back-Bench Member of Parliament with an extremely sharp and piercing instrument of investigation. Unfortunately, the parliamentary ombudsman scheme got off to an inauspicious start and attracted much criticism for its timidity. Over the subsequent 30 years, its reputation has been enhanced, to the point where it occupies a part of the fabric of the UK's unwritten constitution. The quotation is taken from the first report of the Select Committee in 1990.

However, despite the undoubted success of the scheme in providing a weapon of parliamentary control over the administration of government—in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, "a highly effective instrument"—it does that only for a complainant who is able to seek the assistance of the ombudsman through a Member of Parliament.

Last year—30 years after that sharp and piercing instrument of investigation was created—20 per cent. of Members of Parliament found no use for it. The 550 Members who did refer cases referred, on average, only three cases each. Consequently, from a high watermark of 1,933 cases in 1996, the number of new referrals to the ombudsman has steadily decreased to an annual total of about 1,650.

Were the bald referral statistics the whole story, they would provide evidence equally for arguments that the ombudsman system was being appropriately used and for arguments that the system was being underused. However, Members of Parliament are clearly not referring to the ombudsman's office only such cases as they have reason to believe fall within his jurisdiction and they are unable to resolve themselves—the dual role that it was intended that Members of Parliament should play as gatekeepers to the system.

The ombudsman himself has advised Members that, in doubtful cases, they should not try to fathom the complexities of his jurisdiction, but should simply refer the cases to him. Hon. Members appear to have taken him at his word: as the ombudsman's reports down to the most recent one confirm, about 70 per cent. of cases referred to him have a subject of complaint that is not within his jurisdiction.

I would argue that, although the parliamentary ombudsman system has been an undoubted success and has provided a Rolls-Royce service in those 30 per cent. of cases that are either fully investigated or resolved informally, it has not been a success in respect of that countless unknown number of complainants who are potential clients of the service but who, for one reason or another, never get their cases to the ombudsman. We ought to address that problem, which has arisen as a consequence of several coincidental factors. I propose to draw the House' s attention to some of those factors and to suggest some solutions.

The first element in my argument is that the House of Commons has paid insufficient regard to the work of the ombudsman in the past, so we should not be surprised by the lack of awareness among the general public and newly elected Members of Parliament. It is widely recognised that, among other functions, debates in the Chamber serve to enhance parliamentary awareness of issues. It is now almost five years since the last debate on the work of the ombudsman, and I share other hon. Members' dismay at that delay.

In opening the last debate on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, Mr. James Pawsey, then Chairman of the Select Committee, said: I welcome this debate; the first since 1991. Clearly that is far too long an interval and the House should be given greater opportunity to consider the work of the Parliamentary and National Health Service Commissioners."—[Official Report, 15 December 1994; Vol. 251, c. 1125.] When responding to that debate, the then Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science could give neither Mr. Pawsey nor other hon. Members who had raised the same point any assurance that there would be any more regular debates on the issue. However, I am sure that, were the former Minister still a Member of Parliament, he would be asking himself these questions: why is it now almost five years since the last debate on the work of the ombudsman, and how seriously does the House of Commons take that work, given that such irregular debates take place?

I recognise that, to an increasing extent, much of the valuable work carried out by and in the House of Commons is done outside the Chamber. However, given the nature of the service provided by the parliamentary ombudsman to Members of Parliament, one would have thought that a rare debate on the report of the Select Committee on the ombudsman's reports to the House would have attracted an audience and participation significantly wider than the members of the Select Committee itself.

I do not want to be misunderstood or misinterpreted—I am not arguing for the cancellation of debates if they do not attract the attention of many hon. Members besides the members of a specific Committee, supported by a few others with special interests or Front-Bench responsibilities. Debates such as today's—sparsely attended or not—at least have the intrinsic merit that they attract to the Dispatch Box a Minister who is briefed on the issues of the day.

When the Select Committee structure was established in 1979, the new Government at least appeared determined to give Parliament the teeth to monitor the work of Government Departments. The Procedure Committee that initiated the changes argued that a new balance had to be struck with the central aim of allowing the whole House to exercise effective control and stewardship over Ministers and the expanding bureaucracy of the modern state.

In introducing the proposals, the then Leader of the House referred to revolutionary changes that marked a crucial day in the life of the House of Commons. He said: we are embarking upon a series of changes that could constitute the most important parliamentary reforms of the century."—[Official Report, 25 June 1979; Vol. 969, c. 35.] That historic perspective on the establishment of Select Committees was not shared by everyone—certainly not by all Members of the House. At the time of the debate on the substantive motion setting up the Committees, the then Member of Parliament, Willie Hamilton, contended that the whole process was the status quo in a different wrapping. He continued: The Government are making these proposals precisely because they know they are cosmetic and will not change anything much."—[Official Report, 25 June 1979; Vol. 969, c. 98–99.] Viewed from today's perspective, it would appear that the arguments for a new system advanced by the Procedure Committee then could be asserted with equal strength today. The Committee's report said: surveillance of the Executive will not be substantially improved unless other reforms take place, such as … among other things … more access to the Floor of the House of Commons. There can be no criticism to the effect that the Select Committee on Public Administration or its predecessor, the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, have failed to devote sufficient time to considering the work of, and reports from, the ombudsman: on the contrary.

Indeed, when the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Health Service Ombudsman were appointed in 1967 and 1974 respectively, it is undoubtedly true that the Committee gave the ombudsmen backbone. The danger then was that the first Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, as a former civil servant, might bow to pressure from former departmental colleagues and, to coin a phrase, "stay native". The Committee encouraged him to think more confrontationally and, at least in important cases, to conduct individual investigations.

I argue that there was then creative tension between the ombudsman and the Committee. However, now that the system is fairly well established, the Committee has a close relationship with the ombudsman. It is a settled relationship that no longer appears to generate much creative tension, apart from the Committee's interest in the throughput time of investigations. The Committee appears to walk in stride with the commissioner, which has some benefits. However, when the relationship between the Committee and the ombudsman was at its most creative, the Committee was snapping at his heels.

The argument that the ombudsman and the Select Committee are a powerful combination for securing remedial action is a separate issue. Undoubtedly, nothing concentrates the mind of a reluctant Department better than the threat of a grilling before the Select Committee. There is no doubt that recalcitrant Departments threatened with this big step find it easier to come up with rather than refuse a remedy. However, that productive dynamic would not be undermined in any way if the Committee presented a more challenging and questioning face to the parliamentary ombudsman. I would argue that the Committee no longer does that, apart from on one or two minor issues.

I turn to the question of the Member of Parliament filter, and in this part of my contribution I hope to address the points made earlier by way of intervention by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack)—I am sure that, if I fail now, he will give me an opportunity to do so later.

I believe that a central reason for the underuse of the Parliamentary Commissioner can be found in the Member of Parliament filter. By putting in place the hurdle of the Member of Parliament filter in 1966, the House accepted three arguments. First, there was the practical reason that, without it, the parliamentary ombudsman would be inundated with complaints. The filter would keep such complaints at bay and within manageable limits. Those who now argue for the retention of the filter often say that the number of complaints to the ombudsman has reduced because of the increased number of alternative complaints procedures provided within Departments or organisations.

If that argument is true, the siphoning off of complaints to intradepartmental complaints procedures would help to stem the expected flood were the filter to be removed. As a member of the legal profession, I was never impressed by the floodgates argument when it was put to me from the Bench in connection with any decision.

Those of us who believe that the existence of the filter and the requirement for the intervention of a Member of Parliament—not the filtering provided by the Member, but simply the requirement for the intervention—have a stifling effect on potential claims, must accept that their removal would have serious resource implications. However, we accept the commitment of additional resources to the identification of maladministration and the resolution of complaints as an appropriate expenditure which will lead to cost savings in the long run.

The filter may control the quantity of complaints received, but it does nothing to ensure equality of justice for all complainants, and generates a fundamental flaw increasingly out of kilter with modern thinking about access to justice for all. It is also out of kilter with the Government's ambitions for public services as set out in chapter 3 of the White Paper, "Modernising government". Paragraph 6 of that chapter says that the Government want public services that, among other things, make it easy to complain and get a result when things go wrong.

Secondly, the House accepted the argument that a filter would make the establishment of the ombudsman's office more acceptable to Members of Parliament who might otherwise have seen it as a rival to their grievance-handling activities. In 1999, do we really believe that a system that absorbs about 1,500 complaints a year, and rejects 70 per cent. of them, is a rival to Members of Parliament in their "ombudsman" and advocacy roles?

In 1997, communications from Members of Parliament to Ministers were estimated to amount to 200,000—the equivalent of about 300 per year per Member. If we compare that with the 1960s, when research shows that Members of Parliament were generating only about 20,000 letters a year, we get a flavour of how little threat an unfiltered ombudsman system would be to Members of Parliament in their exercise of that role.

In 1999, it is not the fear of a constitutional rival that threatens Members' parliamentary lives, but the increasing demands made of them to help their constituents. The number of people seeking the help of their Members of Parliament has increased dramatically. In the mid-1960s, the total mailbag for Parliament consisted of 10,000 letters a week. By 1997, that figure had increased to 70,000 letters, 40,000 of which were incoming mail. What does the arithmetic show? Do Members of Parliament answer 10,000 letters a week? That would be slightly disturbing—[Interruption.] No, they do not all come to me. There can hardly be a Member of Parliament who would not welcome some relief from that increasing burden.

Next, the House accepted what was described as the ground of the high constitutional principle—that the ombudsman should be an additional weapon in a Member of Parliament's armoury rather than a freestanding institution undermining Ministers' and Departments' accountability to Parliament. It is a good job that the frequency of, and the participation in, debates about the ombudsman's work are not the only measure of how highly Members have regarded that "high constitutional principle" since 1967.

How could an ombudsman who has no power to institute his own departmental audit, and whose annual reports merit pathetically few column inches in our national newspapers and almost no electronic media coverage, present any alternative to the constitutional position adopted by the House as a safeguard of ministerial responsibility?

In addition, possibly because of the complexities of the ombudsman's jurisdiction and remit, Members of Parliament apparently find it difficult to decide whether complaints should be investigated by his office. As I have said, in most years 70 per cent. of the complaints sent to the ombudsman are outwith his jurisdiction. The modern Member of Parliament, whatever the historical precedent may suggest, seems content with the principle that cases may be referred to the ombudsman whether they would be more appropriately dealt with elsewhere or not.

To those reasons, I could add a lack of public awareness, which the hon. Member for Winchester spoke about. I throw one more statistic into the debate. The parliamentary ombudsman estimates that only 14 per cent. of the public know anything about him, never mind know and understand why he is there. I have no doubt that other hon. Members have their own reasons for their underuse of the parliamentary ombudsman, and they could add to the list to which I have treated the House in the past 15 minutes.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Twenty minutes.

Mr. Browne

I was careful to refer only to the part of my speech in which I set out those reasons: the other part was an introduction.

I have given sufficient evidence of the need for change. That said, I believe that it is time we had this debate, for several reasons. A new ombudsman has been appointed since the previous debate. In January 1997, when Mr. Michael Buckley was appointed, he brought a different approach to the office on a number of issues. It is clear from the marked improvement in throughput times and the efficient clearance of all cases that his approach is paying off.

On 30 March this year, the Minister for the Cabinet Office announced a review of the public sector ombudsman in England. That review is taking place in a post-citizens-charter age and at a time of modernisation. If the ombudsman's deliberations are to reflect that agenda, it is appropriate that the House put down some contemporary markers.

There has also been devolution in Scotland and Wales. Scotland and Wales have their own parliamentary commissioner or equivalent. It is interesting to note that, despite the constitutional difficulties that this may present, there is direct access to the Welsh ombudsman.

Finally, it is appropriate to remind my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that many of the undertakings made by the then Government in response to the 1994 review have been awaiting legislative time since then. I am sure that those undertakings will be considered under the current review.

I said that was my final point, but there is one other factor that makes it apposite to have a review. Lest it should have escaped the attention of hon. Members, I might point out that there has been a radical change in the party composition of the House of Commons since the previous debate, and my impression is that at that time it was older Members and Conservative Members who favoured the MP filter.

In conclusion, I offer three thoughts for consideration by the Parliamentary Secretary, by the Government's review and by the Select Committee. First, are the arguments for the MP filter still compelling? Secondly, does the ombudsman system provide value for money? Between them, the parliamentary ombudsman and the health service ombudsman cost about £15 million, receive about 5,000 referrals and fully investigate about 450 of them. I suspect that there is a long-term disadvantage in owning a Rolls-Royce, and that is its mileage per gallon. Thirdly, is it time to amend the existing legislation to simplify the ombudsman's jurisdiction? On that I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase. We should amend the 1967 legislation to show what is not within his jurisdiction, as opposed to listing what is.

9.24 pm
Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

In view of the time, I shall make only a few brief remarks as a contribution to the debate. Through our deliberations in the Select Committee, we have clearly learned that the office of the ombudsman is important as an instrument for individual citizens to exercise their democratic rights and to assert those rights against the state and against other institutions. It is a major instrument of democracy if it is used properly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said, it has been a great success over the years.

If, in the few minutes available to me, I concentrate on what I believe are the shortcomings of the system, it is not to underrate those successes, but to consider how we can improve the office. We should examine whether the institution that we have established is serving its purpose, whether it is accessible to the individual citizen and whether it resolves complaints speedily.

I agree with many who have spoken today that one of the real drawbacks of the ombudsman system is the fact that many ordinary citizens do not understand how it works or how to approach it. We must consider how it works against the background of an increase in the number of institutions that deal with complaints. Indeed, many institutions have set up their own procedures to resolve complaints. In particular, we should consider the system against the background of increasing litigation to which some have referred today—particularly litigation involving the NHS.

As a lawyer—like my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne)—I suppose that I should be in the business of encouraging people to go to law. However, I have to say that, particularly when dealing with medical negligence cases, I have observed that what often motivates people is not a desire to have their day in court, but simply a desire to find out what has gone wrong and to secure an apology. If we establish a system that allows them to do that, we can drastically reduce the amount of litigation against, in particular, the national health service.

The question we must then ask is whether the system does that. I would argue that, at present, it does not. When we considered the Select Committee's report, it was interesting to discover that, although previously the number of cases referred to the ombudsman had risen each year, by 1997 it was falling. That may be partly due to the introduction of other systems of redress, but I am convinced by my own experience that it is also partly due to the difficulties that people have in gaining access to this system. There is a lack of knowledge out there. As the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) pointed out, the very title of the ombudsman—the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—often puts people off. What does it mean to the ordinary citizen? Very little, I think.

There is also a problem in regard to the ability of the ombudsman system, as we have it, to resolve cases speedily. In the last year that we looked at, 1997–98, it was taking an average of 100 weeks to resolve cases. Although some of that was certainly due to the tackling of a backlog of old cases, even in 1992 the average time was 52 weeks. In my view—especially in cases involving the health service, when people will be under a severe strain already—that is far too long to have to wait.

Many hon. Members have mentioned that we have different ombudsmen dealing with different parts of the public sector. That is confusing for the public. Surely it is time for the House to consider setting up a single office, so that a single ombudsman could deal with all cases across the public sector. It is also time to consider the issue of the ombudsman's jurisdiction. As has been said, there is a case for amending the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 to specify which bodies are excluded from the ombudsman's jurisdiction, rather than those that are included.

The real problem, however, is that many non-departmental public bodies are not within the jurisdiction, and they have spread into many areas of our lives. The same is true of many bodies that now work in community care, or provide services for our citizens. It is time that we seriously considered how those bodies can be made accountable, and how an individual citizen can gain redress in that sector. That was brought home to me forcefully by a recent case in my constituency involving a charitable institution—in this instance, a charity almost wholly funded by public money through a section 64 grant.

We have to start asking ourselves: how is public accountability best served in those cases? How can an individual gain redress if something goes wrong? Those institutions often provide services to vulnerable groups and cover major areas of people's lives. It is not good enough for hon. Members simply to close their eyes to that situation, however difficult it might be to resolve, and to leave individual citizens without redress.

I agree with what has been said about the problems with the Member of Parliament filter. It is now illogical and unsustainable. As I said in an intervention, the issue for us should be how to make the ombudsman accountable to the House, rather than how to filter individual cases.

The issue of discretion needs to be tackled. I have personal experience of referring a number of cases to the ombudsman, who has then declined to investigate. Often, the individual who goes to the Member of Parliament has reached the end of the line in pursuing a case. That is a cause for concern. Where does the individual go in that situation? Often, we leave him or her with nowhere to go.

Our challenge is to ensure that we have a much more accessible, simplified and proactive ombudsman service, which individuals can understand and to which they have easy access. A presumption should be built into the system in favour of investigation, rather than non-investigation. If we do that, we shall offer to individual citizens a major extension of their democratic rights and a major safeguard against an overmighty state. With that, I draw my remarks to a close as I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) is waiting to speak.

9.32 pm
Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

I am particularly happy to participate in the debate, although the comments of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) about what something is called brought to mind that a friend of mine could never pronounce "ombudsman" and always referred to him as the omnibus man. It was in relation to the local government ombudsman, an office that used to be a filter through local councillors, but which no longer is. That has not brought the end of democracy as we know it. Instead, it has enhanced the local government ombudsman.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said that the relationship would change if the Member of Parliament filter were removed. I accept that, but change will be necessary if we are to champion people's rights. When the system was set up, the culture was that the state knew best and people were subjects of the state. In the 1990s, there is more a culture of people exercising their rights. If the ombudsman is to move to the culture of exercising people's rights, the relationship between the ombudsman, parliamentary Committees and Parliament itself will have to change. That change is to be encouraged.

Another problem is the initial review. One of the key grounds for refusal is the time limit. I have a case where a Department has refused to accept that there was a problem because the person complained outside the time limit. The ombudsman refused to take on the case because it was outside the time limit for investigation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) has said, where does a person go then?

We keep going back to the ombudsman to try to persuade him to take on the investigation. If the case were investigated, he would find the department guilty of maladministration, and learn that it should have informed the person at the time and did not. It would be clear that there had been maladministration and she would receive the entitlement that she has been denied. There is the whole question of denial of justice because of the way in which the ombudsman system rejects series of investigations.

The issue is less about the number of complaints than about how those complaints are handled. Individuals' rights are critical. We should also bear in mind the changing nature of the state.

I am dealing with a planning dispute case that has been taken to the ombudsman. The case involves the former Department of the Environment, English Partnerships, the former Commission for New Towns, the local authority, the parish council and a developer. However, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration has power to deal with only a part of the case—as some of the parties are public, whereas others are only partly public—and the parties have had to go to the local government ombudsman to resolve other parts of the case. The problem is the boundary between the two ombudsmen, both of whom are saying, "It's the other ombudsman's responsibility to sort it out."

As we move towards more joined-up government—something that I fully support—including task forces, a social exclusion unit and a new way of working to end a silo mentality, how are we to hold to account those engaged in cross-departmental working? The ombudsman's role will have to evolve to address that issue. The Government should have a holistic approach, but the ombudsman's role also will have to be brought up to date.

I do not know of many private-sector complaints procedures that are the same today as they were in the 1960s. I do not think that the public service should be denied similar modernisation in its complaints procedures.

The ombudsman's relationship to regulators, such as Ofwat, has already been mentioned in the debate. However, how is the ombudsman to deal with the current plethora of regulators? I hope that the Government's review will address that issue.

The draft Freedom of Information Bill is raising issues about the role of the information commissioner, and the fact that the information commissioner will have responsibility for the denial of information. As was stated in evidence to the Committee, there is a clear relationship between the denial of information and maladministration. Although it was acknowledged that the issue will have to be addressed, the situation emphasises the plethora of regulatory bodies.

When other countries appoint ombudsmen, those ombudsmen are responsible to the legislature and not to the Executive. I strongly argue that the ombudsman appointment process should involve the Select Committee, which should have a role in interviewing, if not in appointing, ombudsmen. The role between the Executive and the legislature in appointing ombudsmen will have to develop over the years. As joined-up Government and modernising government proceed apace, the relationship of this place to the Executive also will have to develop.

The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) raised the issue of consumer protection—which my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North also dealt with, but in relation to the health service. The Government have published a White Paper on consumer protection—on rip-off Britain—and are taking action to protect consumers. However, the Government's action should have an effect on how ombudsmen operate.

Currently, ombudsmen deal only with individual cases, not with institutional maladministration in which departmental procedures, rather than individual decisions, are causing the problems. As more individual cases are resolved by recourse to consumer legislation, ombudsmen will have to devote greater effort to examining institutional and information technology failures. Dealing with institutional failure and with how Departments are structured, and not with individual failures—although the United Kingdom is particularly bad at project management—has bogged down various Governments. I believe that the ombudsman has various skills that would be beneficial in addressing those issues.

9.40 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I pay tribute to my neighbour and friend, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), for the way in which he introduced the debate and for his service as Chairman of the Committee. I thank also someone who has not been mentioned tonight, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), for his leadership and chairmanship of the Committee, until he was called to higher and wester things earlier this year.

I do not wish to sound churlish, but this has been in many ways an unsatisfactory debate. I am the first Member to speak who is not a member of the Select Committee, and the Minister shares that distinction with me. This is a subject of central importance to Members, but it has been a poorly attended debate on a day when one would have hoped that there would have been rather more in the Chamber. I do not subscribe to the ridiculous notion that the long recess is a long holiday, because clearly it is not. However, it would be nice to see more Members from both sides in the Chamber for a debate on a matter of central importance.

What we have had is a number of Select Committee members airing their views to the Chamber, and explaining why most of them think that what we need is a national complaints investigation bureau, rather than the system that we have at the moment.

Mr. White

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Patrick Cormack

No, I cannot, as I have such a short time.

That is the logic of much of what has been said by the hon. Members for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) and for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), and—to some degree—by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase himself.

I agree with those who do not like the title of ombudsman, which is rather daunting and off-putting and difficult for people readily to understand. I much prefer the title "Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration", but that, too, is a mouthful. I would rather he had been called the public referee or investigator, or the parliamentary examiner—something that was more clearly explicit of the duties that he had to do.

When the instrument—as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase described it—was established, it was to be an instrument to assist Members of Parliament in their duties of scrutinising, probing and holding the Executive to account. Here, I ally myself entirely with the general substance of the remarks of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East.

On 18 October 1966—33 years and one day ago—Richard Crossman sought to describe to the House what he meant by maladministration. He said that it included bias, neglect, inattention, delay, incompetence, ineptitude, perversity, turpitude, arbitrariness and so on."—[Official Report, 18 October 1966; Vol. 734, c. 51.] We could all go "and so on". Tempting though it is, I will not score points against the Government in illustrating each of those defects. However, we should remember that the instrument was established to assist the Member of Parliament, and that it was an instrument of last resort.

It was expected that the Member of Parliament would be able, properly and adequately, to follow through most of the things that a constituent took to him. We must remember that the ombudsman was established in the days before Members of Parliament had free postage, even, and when surgeries were not common practice for all Members of Parliament. When I entered the House nearly 30 years ago, there were Members who had been here before the war and who regaled us in the Dining Room with tales of the "annual visit" to the constituency. The whole thing has changed beyond recall. In those days, the pressures on Members were much fewer. The system was an instrument of last resort and it worked very well.

We have to address whether we should maintain the parliamentary filter and whether the official in question should remain a parliamentary appointment. I agree that, if it is to be a parliamentary appointment, it should be a parliamentary appointment. I find it difficult to listen to people talk about Government review. The Government should not be reviewing the adequacy and efficacy of those set up to monitor and—if we like—police the effectiveness of their Departments. That is the duty of the House. It is a pity that there are not more of us here this evening and we do not have longer to discuss the issue. We have to decide whether we want a cohesive instrument or set of instruments that can assist us in our duties or whether we want to set up a public complaints investigation procedure that might work side-by-side with us in some respects but would be separate from us. The House cannot have it both ways. We have to examine the issues in more careful detail than perhaps we have hitherto.

I take the point of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun about the figure of 14 per cent. That survey was taken as recently as 1996. At that time, only 14 per cent. of the public understood that there was such a creature as the ombudsman, yet there has been a proliferation of ombudsmen in recent years—enough to fill several double decker omnibuses. How far should we seek to contain and direct their activities from this House? How far should we reserve to ourselves the function of one of them? How far should we move in a different direction? We have to address those issues.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and others about the need for an annual debate. That is a difficult point to sustain when we see that, in the Chamber this evening, we have had some—not all—members of the Select Committee debating the issue with no help or audience from parliamentary colleagues. Of course I absolve the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), who has come in specifically to listen to my speech. I am deeply flattered that he should be here. I hold him in fond affection.

The House must address the issues. I had some reservations about the establishment of the so-called second Chamber that is to sit in Westminster Hall at the beginning of the new Session, but I hope that it will give an opportunity for a series of more penetrating, longer debates on what Members of Parliament need to assist them in holding the Government to account. We are not as successful at that as we should be. I am not making a party point. I made the same point when I sat on the other side of the Chamber. The Government need to be held to account. They are not being held to account and they are getting away with far too much. Parliament needs to reassert itself. We all have a duty to take a part in that reassertion.

The ombudsman could have a critical role to play in that process. If he is to have that role, it is essential that access to him should be via, and with the assistance of, the Member of Parliament, but that means more resources for him and a greater awareness on the part of Members of Parliament of what the office was established for. The House must address those issues in some form here or in Westminster Hall. It is for the House to address those issues rather than the Select Committee, which is answerable to us and reports to us.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and his colleagues for the assiduity of their work and the excellence of their report. However, we have illustrated tonight that we stand on the verge of a debate that must take place about the central role and function of the ombudsman and how he should perform that role.

9.50 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate because, as colleagues on both sides of the House have said, they do not happen very often. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said that that was unsatisfactory, but we have had an adult debate with no party politicking. Several big issues have been raised and I intend to try to deal with some of those major themes. I will of course write to individual hon. Members about points raised, especially to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) about the point he made about the cost to the NHS of litigation and possible insurance funds.

I wish to ensure that the tone and themes of the debate are drawn to the attention of Ministers and officials who are involved in the review of the ombudsman schemes and the evaluation of the NHS complaints procedure. Although differences have been expressed, the debate has seen a commonality of view.

I shall say a word about the modernising Government agenda. Several hon. Members talked about how things have changed since the last debate, including the citizens charters and the interest groups that regulate industry and Government and look after consumer interests. Hon. Members mentioned the need for high standards and well-defined recording systems and audit and decision-making trails. The system should be there when people need it and be quick and receptive. It should have common points of entry and, most importantly, put customers and citizens first. That is a big agenda and the present review of the ombudsman system needs to be put in that context.

As parliamentarians and public servants, one contribution that we can make is to praise things when they go well and identify good practice. If I had my way, for example, I would change the name of the Audit Commission to the Quality Commission. It should be a body that not only looks at what goes wrong, but promotes those things that go well. Ofsted could also learn a lesson from that, because it tends to be keen to criticise the negative, not to promote or sing the praises of good practice.

Unfortunately, we have an ombudsman system that, by definition, comes into play when things go wrong. It identifies problems, but it should also help us to learn the lessons and make use of complaints. I am never afraid of complaints, because they can lead to changes in the system.

I was pleased to see that the Select Committee's report contained a section on naming and shaming, which is a topical issue. As I say, I think that we must encourage, praise and reinforce good practice. Paragraph 34 of the Select Committee's report states: It is not and has not been the Committee's intention to 'name and shame'. It is the salutary lessons to be drawn from individual cases that we are interested in. I think that that is right. Let us praise the positive, but let us learn the lessons when things go wrong. I am not sure that a discussion involving naming and shaming gets the balance right. People who are interested in social policy tend to focus on failure: we do not sell and sing success. There is a lesson for us all there.

I was interested to hear a number of hon. Members mention the way in which problems are dealt with. I agree with those who said that it is vital that there should be an early apology. When things go wrong, we should recognise that people are dissatisfied with the service. A simple acknowledgement of that is often enough.

People tell me that they are not interested in the money that might be paid in compensation and that they do not want to go to court to secure it. What they want is that the appropriate lessons are learned—for example, from the death of a child—so that what went wrong never goes wrong again. There are difficulties to do with legal liability, but practitioners should be aware that a simple understanding of, and willingness to accept, people's unhappiness with the process can save much time later and remove the need for recourse to lawyers.

Complaints were made about the lack of a regular debate on these matters. Again, I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire for mentioning the Main Committee. I know that he has doubts about that innovation, which will start soon. However, I believe that it will allow hon. Members to look much more closely at Select Committee reports. There will be more time to debate them, and in a less partisan manner.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) was right to say that we have legislation mania. One of this Government's big achievements will be the move to pre-legislative scrutiny. I hope—to put it no higher—that the Main Committee will give us the opportunity to indulge in post-legislative scrutiny. My hon. Friend suggested that it should do so, and such scrutiny would appear to follow on from its pre-legislative counterpart as sensibly and inevitably as night follows day.

I am delighted that the Minister of State, Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), is alongside me on the Front Bench at the moment, as I was involved in the debates on the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. We cannot use that Act as a clarion call to action if we do not go back and check that what was intended with the legislation is being achieved in practice. The Main Committee will give us the opportunity to carry out that check.

A number of points were made in the debate about the present parliamentary ombudsman system. It was said that the work load was too great. I should like to put on record my respect and admiration for the work of Sir William Reid, and for the present ombudsman team. I have looked at their work, and it seems to me that a number of administrative steps have been taken to speed up operations. Justice delayed is justice denied in the review system too, and progress is being made there.

A number of hon. Members spoke strongly about the filter system operated by Members of Parliament, and they asked whether it could be justified, given the changes that have taken place. I can tell them that the review is now under way and that the plethora of ombudsmen is one of the matters to be examined. The review will ensure that we achieve value for money, and I hope that we will receive some initial response early next year.

The debate has been helpful and valuable. There is a good deal of consensus around, but I echo the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, who said that the matter is up to us. It is our system; we parliamentarians agreed it, and we must rise to the challenge of change.

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