A. We first met as a group when twelve persistent complainants were invited to give evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) on 26th November 2013. This was part of the PASC inquiry ‘Complaints – do they make a difference?’ After we gave our evidence most of us met up again in the House of Commons cafe and it was there among the coffee cups that the Pressure Group was born.
Q2. Who suggested the formation of the group?
A. While we were exchanging stories and email addresses, Lindsay Roy an MP from PASC, came down to see us. He congratulated us on our calm presentation and suggested that we formed a Pressure Group. As I already had the website phsothefacts.com I agreed to act as the coordinator.
Q3. How many are in the group as of October 2014?
A. The group consists of about 40 people right now. New people join and others leave so it has stayed at this level for some time now.
Q4. What have been the highlights so far?
A. When PHSO agreed to hold a seminar for Pressure Group members this was a major breakthrough. We had all been through the system and our files were stamped ‘do not acknowledge’. It didn’t matter how many times we tried to tell them that they had got the facts wrong, the door was firmly shut. Attending the seminar on 26th June 2014 was very emotional. The raw pain of injustice soon surfaced and for once the Ombudsman staff could see the suffering of the people behind the data.
Q5. Which Ministers or public servants are in a position to progress genuine improvements to the PHSO remit?
A. It seems to me there is no political will to reform the Ombudsman. The issues and flaws have been known in political circles for many years. Every now and again there is an inquiry which blows a lot of hot air around, then it all settles down again, much like before. In theory Oliver Letwin, Minister for Policy at the Cabinet Office is in a position to progress genuine improvements when he reports back on his inquiry into complaint handling and the Ombudsman landscape. Will he bite the bullet and deliver a radically reformed service which actually protects citizens from the abuse of power? We will have to wait and see.
Q6. What are the shared issues that all members of the Pressure Group have in common?
A. Injustice and a determination to fight it. Most of the group members went to PHSO with NHS complaints. It matters not whether your complaint was NHS or Parliamentary we have all been through the same system in much the same way. Our stories are so similar that it has to be deliberate policy to close cases down in this way. Firstly, when PHSO look at the evidence there will be unresolved discrepancies and contradictions in the accounts of the two parties. Despite evidence to the contrary, PHSO will always accept the version supplied by the public body and decide that their account is ‘beyond question’. They will simply skirt around or totally ignore any evidence which doesn’t match up to this version of events. They will reword the account given by the public body in order to make their draft report, without asking to see any evidence of their claims. Accepting on face value without any probing cannot be termed an ‘investigation’. The draft report is often full of factual errors and assumptions accepted as truths. The complainant may spend painstaking hours correcting this draft report only to find that the final report is virtually the same. After the final draft is agreed the decision is set in stone. You can ask for a review, but this is just an internal rubber stamp of the PHSO assessment. Your case is now closed, ‘no acknowledgement’ is placed on your file and your only option is to go for judicial review. Job done – next.
Q7. Which issues could PHSO easily improve by this time next year?
A. They could provide proper investigations, remedy and closure for historic cases. People have waited a long time for the facts of their case to be fully investigated. They want answers to questions and accountability for failings. They want to identify where things went wrong for their loved ones so that it never happens again to another family. Closure requires acknowledgement and remedy and PHSO have the power to provide this. They have started assessing historic cases and hopefully by this time next year all members of the group will have the answers they have been seeking for such a very long time.
Q8. What do you believe to be the greatest challenge for the future of PHSO?
A. Political interference has always prevented PHSO from acting to protect the citizen rather than protect the government. They may be called ‘independent’ but they work hand in glove with the Cabinet Office the Department of Health and the Treasury. The Ombudsman herself, Dame Julie Mellor, is an establishment figure and all the real decisions are made behind these particular closed doors. PHSO is just another part of the cover up culture used at will by the government of the day.
Q9. You receive lots of positive feedback from the group, on average, how many hours do you tend to do behind the scenes?
A. Not sure if the two parts of this question are related. Firstly, on the subject of positive feedback, I think it has been of tremendous value to everyone, myself included, to be part of this group. To realise that it is not your fault and that the system has conspired against you to shut out your complaint. There is a great strength in sharing our stories and knowing we are not alone. Also, since we have come together we have had a louder voice. Doors at PHSO and Parliament have started opening to us. We are being heard and hopefully, in the fullness of time, our words will trigger appropriate actions from those in authority. How many hours? Impossible to say. I don’t do too much in the evening as I need to switch off, but other than that if I have the time there is always something which needs my attention.
Q10. Why do you do it?
A. I guess I have a strong sense of injustice. I also think that the people are the guardians of democracy. Once we stop being vigilant then the elite rule with impunity. It is easy to look the other way, to say, as so many do. that you can’t do anything to change the system. I believe that collectively we have more power than we could ever imagine. If enough of us stood together on a single issue we would frighten the life out of them. We need to continually challenge acceptance of the status quo.