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Bernard Jenkin MP: More public service complaints please!

People leaving hospital

Bernard Jenkin MP, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, argues that lessons must be learnt from the poor complaints handling at Mid-Staffs hospital. Should more be done to make complaints count?

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, which oversees complaints about government departments and the NHS, described the handling of complaints by the NHS as a ‘toxic cocktail’, due to a combination of ‘a reluctance on the part of citizens to express their concerns or complaints’, and a defensiveness on the part of services to ‘hear and address concerns’.

This was no more evident than in the shocking collapse of care at Mid Staffordshire Hospital, which prompted the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), of which I’m the chair, to start its inquiry into how complaints are handled across the public sector.

This shaming case should be a wake-up call for the NHS, the Government and for public services as a whole. How complaints are handled determines the quality of the relationship between consumers and public services. The best performing organisations welcome complaints as a way of engaging consumers. Yet, this does not usually happen with our public services.

More complaints please!

Failing to recognise the importance of complaints means that there is not sufficient redress for those who have not been treated fairly, that services are not improved, and that the public are alienated. That is why we have called our report ‘More complaints please!’ More complaints, and better handling of them, will help public services to improve.

There are some parts of the public sector where more attention is being paid to good complaints handling. But Government as a whole is failing to follow best practice in complaints handling or adapt to the needs and expectations of today’s citizens.

PASC’s recommendations for the Government

We therefore recommend that the Government should appoint a specific minister to oversee complaints handling, and that each government department should publish information on the complaints they have handled when they publish their annual report. This should include the number of complaints they have received and the number they have resolved, and the learning has been taken from those complaints.

The aim is not to create bureaucracy or a tick box exercise, but to achieve a greater level of transparency.

Most important, we recommend that the Government should create a single point of contact for people to make complaints about Government departments and agencies.

This would stop people having to navigate their way around the myriad of websites and phone lines for different departments and agencies. Instead, with one point of contact for complaints and with one minister responsible, those who have been let down by public services will be better able to get a fair resolution, and fewer people will be let down in future.

Do you agree with Bernard that there should be a single point of contact for complaints about public services?

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Bernard Jenkin MP, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee in the House of Commons. All opinions expressed here are his own, not necessarily those of Which?.


I think a lot more notice should be taken of criticisms and complaints from those within public services – they should be encouraged to report, in confidence, shortcomings in their services. They should not be labelled as “whistleblowers” and they should not be silenced by gagging orders, accompanied by pay-offs (or bribes, as we would call them). Constructively used, these peoples’ comments could identify shortcomings and prevent the disgraceful cover-ups that have occurred, if used sensibly. It is time those in responsible positionsd realised that if they preside over inadequate services, they and their staff will be held to account.

I would love to complain about the Home Office, but I cannot do so at this time for fear that they will treat me even worse as a result, while making no effort to deal with the substance of my complaint. I’m sure many others feel the same way.

Exactly why some system should be established to allow complaints to be made in confidence. Clearly individual complaints may be unfairly made, but aggregating complaints to establish a likely problem, and then investigating it, will require some central system. No reason why the same system should not also include users complaints as well. At present I understand that many oversight bodies do not accept individuals complaints; but complaints always start with an individual – someone who believes they have been badly treated as a “customer” or an employee who sees “misdemeanours”. Why not make these “oversight” bodies like CQC, Ofgem, and the rest include receipt of individual complaints a part of their remit?

It is important complaints should always be made in writing and forwarded by registered post and state your case constructively and clearly requesting an early response.

Too often the public are sent questionnaires requesting information, sometimes including matters of quite a personal nature but no feedback is ever received. We may have received a satisfactory conclusion to an individual complaint but seldom get to find out whether this has made any real difference or had any effect on bringing about changes at a general level. It has been my experience that members of public services, and in particular medical staff, will always support each other when challenged in a crisis which leaves little incentive for people to persue a complaint and, as a result, are more inclined to opt for the least line of resistance and the necessary changes are never made.

More transparency is definitely needed if we are to avoid another Mid Staffs debacle and if a Govt Minister to oversee complaints is appointed, I for one would certainly welcome this.

I intend referring Bernard Jenkin MP`s Report to The Council who issued me with a PCN Notice, the main issue here being their decision to totally ignore any mitigating circumstances forwarded to them, although I offered to present evidence to back up my case they quote “You should be aware that in prescribed circumstances the Adjudicator may award costs against you if he considers that your appeal is vexatious or frivolous, or your conduct in making and pursuing the appeal is wholly unreasonable.” As I offered to pay the fine when originally stating my case, I consider their approach to be unfair and unreasonable and capable of discouraging anyone from taking the matter any further.

It was reassuring however to read comments in today`s Daily Mail made by Brandon Lewis, Minister for Local Govt. who said “It is clear that CCTV is being used to raise money in industrial volumes for town halls, breaking the constitutional principle that fines should not be used as a source of revenue”. He also makes the point that shoppers will drive to out of town supermarkets or just shop online, undermining the vitality of town centres and leading to `ghost town` high streets.

It is very encouraging to learn that Govt. Ministers are beginning to notice and take action against the authoritarian approach by Local Councils and to recognize that people expect to be treated with respect and fairness when issuing notices that contravene Traffic Offense Regulations.

In a previous conversation I made the point that an inhibiting factor to making complaints, especially about treatment in hospital, is the fear of retribution.

Within the civil aviation sector there is a system known as CHIRP (Confidential Human factors Incident Reporting Programme, see http://www.chirp.co.uk) which enables those working in the area to report problems, particularly those relating to safety, without fear of retribution. Control of CHIRP is through a charitable trust in order to ensure independence and confidentiality. Once a problem has been resolved the results are published in freely available newsletters, anyone can download them from the web. Perhaps it should be added that those making reports are required to identify themselves although this information is never passed on.

The existence of such a system means that people working in the sector are more likely to report problems. There is also a similar system in the marine sector known as the Confidential Hazardous Incident Reporting Programme.

Is it not possible to come up with a system on these lines for the NHS so that staff and patients/relatives can report problems in confidence? It is necessary to emphasise that any such system must be independent in order to ensure confidentiality; that investigations should be rigorous; and that reports on problems and solutions should be made freely available to the public. Failure to meet these criteria would mean that those with problems to report would not trust the integrity of the system.

Bookworm says:
17 April 2014

I agree – I work in education and a member of staff was making a whistleblowing complaint but was warned that if the complaint went much further “down the line” then their name would be made known to the person the complaint referred to. Understandably the whistleblower felt compromised and would not go any further. There should be a means of bringing things to attention without risk of retribution.

We keep talking about Mid Staffs Hospital but it really was an exceptional situation and I do not believe it is at all representative of care standards in the NHS; not that we should be complacent, though – if it can happen once it can happen again and a healthy complaint and investigation system should be the backbone of the NHS. Neglectful, delinquent or wilfully misguided management is extremey difficult to deal with because the control mechanisms are under their control.

I think local authorities are fairly bad at dealing with complaints, and far worse then the NHS at doing things wrong in the first place. I have some experience of a complaint against a city council. It was not a big issue in the overall scheme of things but it concerned a misuse of authority, breach of data protection legislation, and maladministration. The council concerned persistently ignored my properly submitted complaint although it quietly, partially, altered its behaviour. I didn’t consider it worthwhile taking the matter to law or to the Local Government Ombudsman just for a Pyrrhic victory and I guess the local authority also makes that calculation.

As to Beryl’s points above, it is obvious that local authorities have not only secured their own local legislation in the form of traffic orders to enable them to create a whole raft of parking violations but have also enabled themselves to impose higher and higher penalties on errant drivers. Fed up with having to employ a dodgy army of parking enforcers they have now discovered the joys of camera technology to undertake disproportionate enforcement throughout the operational hours of a parking restriction [as well as right turn bans, red light contraventions, bus lane occupation, and anything else they can think of and catch on a camera]. The language used by some local authorities to defend their behaviour and deter any challenges [as quoted by Beryl] is disturbing. Terms like “vexatious” and “frivolous” [another one sometimes used is “otiose”] have legal meanings and cannot be invoked against an appellant exercising their statutory right to explain to the independent adjudicator why a parking ticket should not have been issued. I’m guessing here, but I suspect that the total number of appeals thrown out on the grounds of being vexatious or frivolous, as a percentage of the total, would barely register a fraction of one percent. For a council to intimidate people against challenging them on such a feeble pretext is testament enough to their over-wheening sense of self-importance, bullying tactics, complete contempt for fair dealing, and gross cupidity. The problem is that, while it might not technically be the case that parking eforcement contractors are rewarded by payment for results, budgets for raising the money and spending it are predicated the issue of a certain number of penalty charge notices and a very high percentage rate of collection of the penalties due. I also welcome the Select Committee’s report but have no great confidence it will lead to much change.

John, Mid Staff is not a sole example. For example, allegations of misdemeanour have been made in the past about the CQCs cover ups, Alder Hey and lately a hospital in Bridgend. It seems career threats are often made, and implemented, to protect the guilty. If those who are responsible for, and manage, our public institutions knew that an independent (and active) organisation was there to take concerns in confidence from staff and clients (as a last resort) and to take appropriate action, then they hopefully would behave more professionally. Those who don’t should be dismissed without compensation. Including those at the very top.

Thanks Malcolm. I totally agree with you. Cover-ups for professional protection and compromise agreements on compensation in return for resignations are indicators of corporate delinquency and decadence. A separate and independent authority with guts and bare teeth is certainly needed to put the wind up these organisations.

I complained to my doctors surgery. Their response? Perhaps you would like to find a new doctor!

That might not be a bad idea, because there will now be a lack of trust on both sides. I suggest you push for a proper response or take the matter further.