On 7th February Dame Julie Mellor was given air time on the radio 4 Today programme in order  to deliver the latest missive on poor NHS complaint handling.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b051j5t6#auto   0.53

PHSO had investigated over 100 cases of avoidable death or harm and found that in over a third (40% in fact) the initial investigation was not sufficiently thorough to identify whether something had gone wrong and more importantly why something has gone wrong, so that learning could take place.

Dame Julie confirmed, to the horror of James Naughtie, that in 28 cases a serious incident investigation should have taken place and yet this occurred only 8 times.

That’s terrible, responds Mr. Naughtie, it’s a breach of understanding that these things will be properly investigated.

At this point neither appear to be aware of the obvious irony this revelation presents with Dame Julie Mellor responsible for NHS complaints in her role as Health Service Ombudsman.  It is rather like a teacher complaining that the children under her care are unruly and failing to follow the rules.

When Mr. Naughtie asks in all innocence why it might be that these serious incidents didn’t lead to proper investigations, Ms Mellor replies that it is difficult to hypothesise; yet having recently studied all these cases no guesswork was required.  At this point Ms. Mellor should have been pushed to give actual examples, but the moment was allowed to pass.

Instead she was asked what should be done to rectify this situation; a fair enough question to the Health Service Ombudsman.  Dame Julie replies that it is ultimately up to the health sector to explore and understand why these investigations are not happening and to work together to make sure they can get consistent investigations for the future.  Nothing to do with her then.  This is rather like the unhappy teacher, having complained about her unruly pupils, saying it is up to them to understand the rules and find ways to obey them.   No wonder it is not happening.  Deep sigh.

Many were prompted to write letters of complaint following yet another PR outing for Dame Julie, courtesy of the BBC.

Mr Bernard Jenkin MP,

Chair, Public Administration Select Committee

Dear Mr Jenkin,

Re: Dame Julie Mellor’s disgraceful smokescreen of blaming the NHS 

This letter is directly motivated by James Naughtie’s interview (yesterday) with Dame Julie Mellor, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO). It is additionally motivated by my knowledge of the workings of the PHSO over a number of years.

For the Ombudsman to blame the NHS for its failings in respect of investigations or complaint-handling is, in itself, disgraceful. It is becoming a popular pastime to ‘knock the NHS’ and Dame Julie has boarded that bandwagon.

But there’s more to this than the Ombudsman’s shameless grandstanding – it’s about Dame Julie’s shifting the blame from her own organisation to the NHS.

Some simple facts always help:

  • The NHS is the National Health Service: it does ‘health’. Like all democratic organisations, the NHS has also to deal with complaints. But the NHS is primarily responsible for health; complaint-handling is an extremely important – but second level – competence.
  • The PHSO does ‘complaints’. That’s all the PHSO does: handle complaints. The core competence of the PHSO is complaint handling. The PHSO should both represent and practise the ‘gold standard’ for complaint handling – after all, the PHSO does hold the public sector to account for complaints about maladministration.
  • There has been public and parliamentary concern about the standard of complaint-handling in the public sector for some time; recently the PHSO has been heavily criticised.

Some observations:

  • If the NHS did ‘health’ as badly as the PHSO does ‘complaint-handling’, then every day would be a national disaster.
  • The PHSO has only highlighted problems with NHS complaint-handling after concerns about its own performance had been raised.
  • The PHSO has blamed the NHS as a smokescreen to hide its own failings.

This seems to be a case of Dame Julie first needing to take the beam out of her own eye.

At present the PHSO’s complaint-handling methodology is a national scandal characterised by incompetence, arrogance and straightforward dishonesty.

Dame Julie needs to get her own house in order – then she might be able to comment legitimately and knowledgeably on the standard of complaint-handling and investigations in the NHS.

Better still: Dame Julie should be sacked and replaced with someone with the skills and drive to improve UK standards of handling complaints about public administration.

Yours sincerely,


Nicholas Gould

Cc The Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Health