Call for new powers to probe elderly and mental health care

The NHS and Government complaints watchdog is calling for new powers to allow it to investigate issues such as elderly and mental health care.

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) Rob Behrens is urging the Government to give officials the power to carry out “own initiative inquiries”.

These would allow the ombudsman to launch an investigation without a member of the public having to make an official complaint first.

The PHSO investigates and makes the final decision on complaints that have not been resolved by the NHS in England and UK Government departments and other public organisations.

Mr Behrens told the Press Association that while the system works well following up on criticism, it does not help disadvantaged or vulnerable people who do not make official complaints.

Elderly people are less likely to complain because they fear being victimised, while mental health patients often do not have the capacity or support networks to make an official complaint, he said.

Mr Behrens said introducing own initiative inquiry powers to the draft Public Services Ombudsman Bill will allow his office to probe these issues.

He added: “We know from research that people who complain come from a narrow demographic and people who are disadvantaged or marginalised tend not to complain to the ombudsman.

“The old who use the health service are not likely to complain about things that go wrong because they fear they will be victimised as a result of making a complaint.

“We know people with mental health challenges either don’t have the capacity to complain or don’t have the support networks to enable them to complain.”

Asked if older people’s care and mental health treatment were issues he would want to investigate if granted new powers, Mr Behrens said “absolutely”.

He added: “I produced a report about mental health last year that was a reflection of the several hundred cases we have looked at where people with mental health challenges had been poorly served by the health service.

“On the basis of the evidence, human rights were being violated in individual cases.

“What I can’t do with the present powers is go wider than that and have a review of what it looks like in general and can only confine myself to the individual cases we are looking at.

“There are systematic issues relating to these and it would be a public benefit to look at that.”

But Mr Behrens said there must be conditions on any new powers to launch investigations, such as it being in the public interest and the ombudsman being the best organisation to carry it out.

He added: “What you need to do is set out the conditions under which you can launch an own initiative inquiry so that you don’t just go on fishing expeditions.

“This is a power that should be used very carefully. You don’t do it for flimsy reasons.”

The Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman and European Ombudsman both have own initiative investigation powers.

The draft Public Services Ombudsman Bill was published in 2016 and proposes bringing the PHSO and the Local Government Ombudsman together to form a single Public Service Ombudsman.

Mr Behrens told the public administration and constitutional affairs select committee last week that the draft Bill was a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to look at the powers of the ombudsman and introduce new ones.

But he told PA the Bill must include own initiative powers.

He added: “The legislative remit for my office is considerably out of date, needs renewal and is out of step with good practice in other countries.

“One of the elements of that is an inability at present to launch investigations where a formal complaint has not been made.

“I am keen to ensure that any Bill that comes before Parliament contains that power.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) PHSO.