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What is the Parliamentary Ombudsman?

The Parliamentary Ombudsman is one of two ombudsman offices, Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), which by convention are held by the same person.

The current Ombudsman, Rob Behrens, was appointed on 6 April 2017.

What does the PHSO do?

The PHSO examines complaints of ‘maladministration’. Maladministration can be broadly defined as the public body not having acted properly or fairly or having given a poor service and not put things right.

The PHSO’s role is to provide an independent complaint handling service for complaints that have not been resolved by the NHS in England and UK government departments.

Who can I complain about?

The PHSO website provides a comprehensive list of government departments and other public organisations the PHSO can investigate.

The PHSO’s complaint checker tool ‘Can we look into your complaint?’ provides information on other organisations that may be able to assist if the PHSO is unable to help.

The Ombudsman has described the complaints processes of five government organisations they often get asked about:

For other government organisations, visit GOV.UK to find out how to complain or contact the organisation for its complaints process.

Organisations the PHSO cannot investigate

The PHSO has published a list of organisations they can’t investigate. These include:

The PHSO have provided details of organisations who can help in these instances. If unsure, the PHSO can be contacted on 345 015 4033 for advice on who to contact.

What is the MP filter?

The Parliamentary Ombudsman can only look at complaints about UK government departments and other UK public organisations if an MP refers the complaint to the Ombudsman. This requirement is set out in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 and is known as the ‘MP filter’.

There is no MP filter for the Health Service Ombudsman.

The PHSO website has published information on Helping your constituents use our service.

How do I complain?

The Parliamentary Ombudsman requires that the complainant must first have put their grievance to the department or public body concerned to allow officials to respond before taking the matter further.

For some government services, complainants will have to go to a second review before the PHSO can investigate. This is often called a ‘second tier’. Examples include the Adjudicator’s Office or the Independent Case Examiner (ICE).

The PHSO website sets out their complaint process ‘How we deal with complaints’ and provides links to their Service Charter and a guide to What happens when we investigate (PDF 107KB).

The PHSO operates a three step complaints process. The following leaflets cover each step in detail:

The PHSO’s leaflet, How we can help MPs and your constituents (PDF), provides a handy checklist.

Complaint forms for UK government services and for NHS services in England can be downloaded from the PHSO website.

What can the PHSO do?

If the PHSO fully or partly upholds a complaint, they can recommend what action an organisation needs to take. This could mean acknowledging mistakes, apologising, or making a payment. They can recommend the organisation makes a payment for a number of reasons, for example:

  • someone has been left out of pocket
  • someone was distressed at seeing a loved one in pain
  • an individual has suffered damage to their reputation

The PHSO cannot force an organisation to take remedial action but if  organisation does not comply with its recommendations, it can lay a report before Parliament. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee can then establish an inquiry to look into the matter, or refer it to another Committee to do so, holding the Secretary of State for the relevant department or head of the NHS organisation to account.

This table from the PHSO’s website sums up what the Ombudsman can and cannot recommend.

Where legal or other remedies are available

If it seems to the PHSO that legal action would be the appropriate route to get the desired results, the PHSO may recommend going to a court or a tribunal rather than investigate the complaint.

Under Section 5(2) of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 the Ombudsman is barred from investigating any action in respect of which “the person aggrieved has or had a remedy by way of proceedings in any court of law”, except where it is unreasonable for the person to resort to legal remedies.

Some complaints can be looked at by the PHSO, and also by other organisations. This includes organisations like the General Medical Council, General Dental Council, the Care Quality Commission and the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

In such instances, The PHSO will discuss the case with the complainant and help them place the complaint with the relevant organisation if that seems the best route to the complaint.

Can an organisation complain to the PHSO?

The PHSO will only accept complaints from individuals who have been affected personally by the issue they are complaining about.

What are the timescales?

If the organisation being complained about does not reply to the complainant in the time it said it would, or the complainant is running out of time to bring the complaint to the PHSO, they should contact the PHSO on 0345 015 4033.

  • Step one – Contacting the PHSO. The PHSO aim to inform complainants if they will look into the complaint in more detail within five working days.
  • Step two – Deciding whether to investigate. The PHSO usually give their decision on whether they will investigate a complaint within 20 working days of receiving it.
  • Step three – Investigating. The PHSO complete most of their investigations within three to six months. Some take longer, depending on the complexity of the issues, but they aim to complete 95% of all our investigations within a year.

Generally, the PHSO will only consider cases which someone has brought within a year of their first becoming aware that they wanted to complain. There are some exceptions to this, such as a delay following a bereavement.

Coronavirus update from the PHSO website: “We are sorry that it could take several months before we can look at your case. This is because both the NHS and UK Government agencies are facing increased demand for services and it is taking time for them to respond to us. We also have more cases than usual to work through.”

Can I appeal against the Ombudsman decision?

There is no formal right of appeal against decisions of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman’s website provides information on the complaints process and how to give feedback. This includes requesting a review of the decision:

If you think we came to the wrong decision, it is best to discuss this with the caseworker who handled your complaint first. If they or their manager cannot resolve things, they will explain the next steps and can send you a form to fill in and return to us. Or you can download the form here (PDF 217.8KB). Your complaint about our decision will be considered by a manager who was not previously involved with your case. We ask you to tell us within a month of our decision why you think we have got it wrong.

The downloadable form says that the PHSO will not usually review a decision after this timeframe but, if the complainant is not able return the form within a month, they should explain the reason for the delay when they send the form and the PHSO will consider whether the time limit should be put aside.

What is Judicial Review?

A complainant can apply to the courts for a Judicial Review, where it is believed that the legal basis of a decision is flawed. However, this is a costly and complex process and individuals should seek legal advice from a suitably qualified professional if they are considering initiating judicial review proceedings. The statutory time limit for bringing a claim for judicial review is three months from the date of the Ombudsman’s final report decision.

Legal help or advice should be given by a suitably qualified person with professional liability insurance. Members of Parliament are unable to provide legal advice, but they may point constituents towards information about sources of legal help and advice. The Library briefing Legal help: where to go and how to pay provides information on sources of advice.

A short guide by the Public Law Project, An Introduction to Judicial Review, gives a simple overview of the system.

The Ministry of Justice has published a Pre-Action Protocol for Judicial Review (England and Wales) that sets out a code of good practice and the steps which parties should generally follow before making a claim for judicial review.

Which Minister is responsible for the Ombudsman?

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) is independent of Government and is accountable to Parliament through the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee for its performance.

Parliamentary questions to the Government about the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) are generally answered by a Cabinet Office Minister.

They may be answered by the minister of another department where appropriate. For example, where questions relate to the Independent Case Examiner (ICE) or investigations into NHS Trusts, they would be answered by the Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health and Social Care respectively.

The Ombudsman and devolution

The Parliamentary Ombudsman deals with reserved matters in relation to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as complaints about maladministration in UK Government departments, their agencies and some other public bodies in relation to England. Separate ombudsman structures exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland:

Further reading | | | @commonslibrary

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