The PHSO leadership must stand down

7 MARCH, 2016

Alastair McLellan

The performance of the PHSO has now passed the bounds of acceptability – its leadership must go, says Alastair McLellan.

Criticising the performance of national regulators and watchdogs can be a lazy sport – and is often the preserve of those looking for some easily won plaudits. The great majority of the people who work for these organisations are dedicated to doing a good job in difficult circumstances and HSJ  generally avoids joining in the shooting match for that reason.

But the performance of the leadership of the Parliamentary Health Service Ombudsman has now passed the bounds of acceptability and is damaging the reputation of the NHS and Parliament. It is also, most importantly, undermining the confidence of those who look to it for help.

The performance of the leadership of the Parliamentary Health Service Ombudsman has now passed the bounds of acceptability

Let us consider the charge sheet.

In June 2014 Jeremy Hunt took the unprecedented step of writing to the PHSO strongly criticising its handling of the case of three year old Sam Morrish.

Three months later a National Audit Office investigation reported a catalogue of governance and process failings by the PHSO, including in the way it had awarded contracts to former colleagues and business partners of ombudsman Dame Julie Mellor.

Shortly after that, the Patients Association said it would no longer refer people to the PHSO because it had no confidence in it as an organisation.

In January 2015 the Commons health committee concluded that, despite attempts at improving its record, “significant concerns remain about the Ombudsman’s own performance in assisting complainants to achieve redress”.

In March last year the inadequate performance of the PHSO in investigating failings at Morecambe Bay was highlighted by the Kirkup review.

The PHSO initially denied Bill Kirkup had revealed any shortcomings, only to revise its statement following the direct intervention of the inquiry chair.

In August the PHSO refused to investigate the death of baby Elizabeth Dixon after a nine month “nightmare” for her parents – forcing Mr Hunt to intervene after the issue was brought to his attention by HSJ.

Low confidence

Among its own staff, too, the PHSO leadership has little support. An internal staff survey conducted last year revealed only 11 per cent of PHSO staff said they had confidence in their leadership.

The PHSO is now investigating and upholding more complaints and Dame Julie has acknowledged the need for change, but it is a case of too little too late.

And now comes news of the involvement of deputy ombudsman Mick Martin in the cover-up of the sexual harassment of a NHS human resources director, and the fact that Dame Julie was told about this seven months before HSJ made it public.

Attempts to seek a comment from the PHSO on the second revelation were met with blocking tactics typical of an organisation in denial.

Morecambe Bay whistleblower James Titcombe said in response to the latest revelations: “There is now a need for an urgent independent investigation into the serious failures in governance and leadership at PHSO. Whilst this situation remains unaddressed, how can anyone have any trust or confidence in the NHS complaints system or believe that any talk of culture change is meaningful?”

The PHSO remains the final arbiter – other than launching a judicial review – for patients who are desperate for answers and have often already experienced a bruising battle to get answers from local NHS organisations. Its reputation matters to all who want to see the NHS rid itself of the taint of cover-up and obfuscation.

The situation is complicated by the confused accountability of the PHSO office – particularly the question of what the formal oversight of the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee means in practice.

That need not stand in the way of what must happen next, however. HSJ calls on Dame Julie and Mr Martin to recognise that their continued employment by the PHSO is unhealthy for the organisation and those it serves. They should do the honourable thing and stand down.