HC Deb 29 November 2000 vol 357 cc948-9
3. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

What steps have been taken to improve the ombudsman system. [139177]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer)

In April this year, Phillip Collcutt and Mary Hourihan produced a survey of the services provided by the ombudsmen, which the Government used as the basis for a consultation document released in April. At present, the Government are considering the 250 responses to that document and we hope to give our views early in the new year

Mr. O'Brien

I welcome the steps that the Government are taking to try to review the system of ombudsman services for individuals in our communities. While my hon. Friend considers responses to the consultation exercise, will he pay particular heed to the fact that the ombudsman service to citizens would be greatly improved if people were allowed to contact the ombudsman direct? Will he also take up with ombudsmen the question of correcting mistakes in published responses to submissions to their offices?

Mr. Stringer

Both the review and the Select Committee on Public Administration recommended that the MP filter be removed, as did virtually every consultee who wrote in to the original review. The Select Committee also asked Members of Parliament for their views, and they differed from the other consultees, as a majority of them wished to retain the MP filter—although in the latest survey, the number who wish to do so has fallen compared with the numbers in previous surveys. The Government will take into account all the views expressed in both consultations.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Why is there no ombudsman for Members of Parliament? What can we do when Ministers consistently take too long to reply, give inaccurate replies or cannot even be bothered to put their names on the bottom of their letters?

Mr. Stringer

If the hon. Gentleman requires the assistance of an ombudsman, he should consider his position in the House. Most Members of Parliament are elected by the people whom they represent. Members on both sides of the House do their best, and do not need help from anybody outside to do their job. However, if the hon. Gentleman feels that he does need help, he should consider further.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

Does my hon. Friend accept that there are real difficulties with the ombudsman schemes? As we try to get closer working between different services, especially health and social services, complainants are faced with the difficulty of dealing with ombudsman systems that work quite differently. If we are to get joined-up government, we need joined-up complaints systems. I welcome the review, but will my hon. Friend make sure that its results produce legislation as soon as possible?

Mr. Stringer

Obviously, I am not going to pre-empt any decisions on the legislative programme. My hon. Friend is right, as provision for each of the three ombudsmen—the health service ombudsman, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the local government ombudsman—is made in three different pieces of legislation. The consultation document and the report by Collcutt and Hourihan point out that, as my hon. Friend says, there are overlapping areas, especially in health and social services, where the ombudsman's remit is not clear, or to which it does not extend. The changing nature of local government means that certain services have been taken out of local government and others have been put in, so some of the provisions of the Act that set up the office of local government ombudsman in 1967 are probably now inappropriate. That is why the reviews recommended a single commission, with generic ombudsmen covering the whole area of public services.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

What are the trends in the numbers of complaints to the ombudsman schemes? Is the hon. Gentleman content with the average time that the various ombudsmen take to make decisions? What is the proportion of cases that ombudsmen decide do not come under their aegis, notwithstanding the fact that prima facie there appear to be good grounds to consider them?

Mr. Stringer

The hon. Gentleman asks an interesting question. The local government ombudsman is currently dealing with 15,000 to 18,000 cases a year. On average, cases dealt with by the health service ombudsman take two years to complete. The local government ombudsman takes six weeks to three months to deal with a case. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration deals with only slightly more than 100 cases a year. The review will consider areas in which the overlap in matters under investigation causes a problem. It will also examine what inhibits ombudsmen from doing an even more effective job than they do at present, and will look at their efficiency. The report expresses the belief that the ombudsmen will be more efficient and effective if they are all in one commission, even though there will be more cases. The Public Administration Committee cast doubt on that assertion, but there is little doubt that removing the MP filter would lead to an increase in the number of cases.

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