Nicholas Wheatley

If you have experienced poor complaint handling by the PHSO then join us to fight for change at

How many people actually make complaints about the way the PHSO have handled their case?

We don’t actually know the answer to this question because people complain in many different ways. 

Some people complain to their MPs, especially if the MP has been involved in their complaint, as is necessary for non-NHS complaints. But people also involve their MPs in their complaints about the NHS, especially when the PHSO mishandle the complaint, as often happens. However MPs tend to lose interest very quickly after receiving complaints about the PHSO, once they discover that there is nothing they can do.

Others make service complaints to the PHSO. A Freedom of Information request from PHSOtheFACTS in 2019 revealed that there were 1,013 service complaints in 2017-18 with 355 upheld, and 212 service complaints in 2018-19 with 147 upheld. The decrease in the number of complaints may have more to do with changes to their process than with an increase in customer satisfaction.

Still others request reviews of the way their complaints have been handled but do not lodge a service complaint. A review request implies dissatisfaction with case handling. On page 44 of the 2019-20 PHSO Annual Report it states that the PHSO carried out 1,199 reviews of decisions in 2018-19 and 942 reviews of decisions in 2019-20. There are likely to have been more actual requests for reviews than these figures suggest as not all requests for reviews translate into actual reviews.

Another way in which people complain about the way their case was handled is by submitting evidence to the annual scrutiny of the PHSO by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). People spend long hours writing out the details of the dreadful service they have received at the hands of the PHSO but sadly this evidence is almost always ignored. 41 written submissions were made to PACAC for the 2020-21 scrutiny of which 26 were published. Of these, 19 were submissions made by members of the public.

Still other people complain directly to PACAC. The Committee does not reveal how many complaints about the PHSO it receives. However, in the 2020-21 scrutiny report PACAC did reveal that they

“…receive a significant amount of correspondence from the public, much of it negative”.

The report then proceeds to speculate, without evidence, that,

“any feedback giving praise or alternative positive views are sent directly to the PHSO, or posted in different form, rather than being provided directly to the Committee”.

Such is the standard of so-called “scrutiny” by PACAC!

Details of “feedback giving praise” are difficult to find but a Freedom of Information request by PHSOtheFACTS in 2017 revealed that in 2016-17 the PHSO received 3,306 feedback request of which just 8 were recorded as compliments.

Page 44 of the 2019-20 PHSO Annual Report reveals that the PHSO received 110 pieces of positive feedback. However this number was padded out to include positive feedback from organisations the PHSO investigate. The amount of positive feedback from people who bring complaints to the PHSO is not known.

As was mentioned previously, every year members of the public submit written evidence to PACAC detailing the poor service they have received from the PHSO. No doubt their intent is to bring to the Committee’s attention the dreadful failings of the PHSO. However, the Committee appears to be blind to this evidence and fails to pay any attention to it. The sad fact is that the Committee members are well aware of how poorly the PHSO performs. They just don’t want to do anything about it. The despair and distress of the public appears to mean little to them

How do we know that the Committee members are aware of the PHSO’s failings? We know from a Freedom of Information request that there were 2,669 cases referred to the PHSO by MPs in 2019-20. The vast majority of these cases would be complaints about non-NHS public bodies which must be referred through an individual’s MP.

We also know that for non-NHS public bodies only 78 cases were accepted for detailed investigation and 49 cases upheld in 2019-20. That amounts to about 2.9% of cases referred by MPs being accepted for investigation and 1.8% being upheld.

Looking at MPs who sit on the PACAC select committee which claims to “scrutinise” the PHSO we find that they made the following number of referrals.

William Wragg 9

Jackie Doyle-Price 3

John McDonnell 5

Tom Randall 4

Karin Smyth 3

Beth Winter –

Ronnie Cowan 6

David Jones 4

David Mundell 3

Lloyd Russell-Moyle 2

John Stevenson 2

Total 41

If only 2.9% of cases referred by MPs lead to a detailed investigation then we can assume that only 1 of the 41 cases referred in 2019-20 by MPs who make up PACAC was actually given a detailed investigation with a 62% chance of being upheld.

So the MPs sitting on PACAC are fully aware of the failure of the PHSO to investigate or uphold complaints about non-NHS public bodies. They will also be aware from interactions with their constituents that the same failings exist for NHS complaints. And yet they choose to do nothing.

The Ombudsman is clearly not interested in providing a good service to MPs who refer complaints to him as he showed in his answer to Q61 of the PHSO scrutiny 2020-21.

In response Lloyd Russell-Moyle gave the game away.

So there we have it. The Ombudsman was set up to alleviate MPs from the awkward and time consuming duty of referring constituents’ complaints directly to the Minister responsible. It wasn’t set up to provide a useful service for the public. And it has the added bonus of making most of these complaints disappear – just like that – without any undue stress on either the Minister responsible for government departments or the constituents’ MPs. And by making the Ombudsman responsible to no-one, Parliament ensures that the public are not able to complain effectively about the way their cases are handled.

Heads they win, tails you lose!

Oliver Wright, The Times 23rd May 2022