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28.09.16

Independent review reveals full extent of health ombudsman failures

Flaws in the governance of the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman (PHSO) contributed to a lack of oversight in a scandal which has forced the ombudsman to resign, an independent review has found.

The PHSO commissioned Sir Alex Allan to carry out the independent review into the adequacy of the procedures and governance arrangements that were applied regarding the role of Mick Martin, the former deputy ombudsman.

Martin was previously a senior independent director on the board of Derbyshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. In 2015, an employment tribunal upheld complaints of sexual harassment and bullying against the trust’s former chair, Alan Baines, from the former HR director, Helen Marks. It also ruled that Martin had assisted in covering up the matter and allowing Baines to retire without damage to his reputation.

Marks then wrote to the PHSO raising concerns about Martin’s suitability for his post. The report found that Julie Mellor, the ombudsman, responded “inadequately” by failing to investigate Marks’ concerns at the time.

Martin then resigned in March following more news coverage of Marks’ complaints, and Mellor resigned in July.

However, the review ruled that the case had highlighted wider problems, including “anomalies” in the role of the ombudsman.

The head of the PHSO holds the roles of ombudsman, chief executive and chair, which the report said “makes it awkward for the organisation to consider questions about the ombudsman's own performance or behaviour, and does not represent current thinking about good corporate governance”.

It supported the government’s plans to address the issues of governance in a Public Services Ombudsman Bill.

When Mellor resigned, she also suggested merging the roles of the PHSO and the Local Government Ombudsman.

A report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee into unsafe hospital discharges, also published today, backed the calls for a joint ombudsman, saying that current divisions between health and social care amount to “political maladministration”.

The report also said that recruitment of senior PHSO staff should be brought into line with senior NHS recruitment by requiring staff to pass a ‘fit and proper’ test, and welcomed plans already being introduced to ensure that the ombudsman receives advice before responding to correspondence.

PHSO must be ‘whiter than white’

Katherine Murphy, CEO of the Patients Association, who has been a long-time critic of the PHSO, said the Association was “not surprised” at the “outrageous” news.

She said the Association had received complaints from “many hundreds of people” about the PHSO’s response to their complaints about health services, and added: “The lack of rigour in the recruitment processes of PHSO staff simply mirrors the experience of people complaining about the health service who highlight an equally shoddy service with lack of attention to detail.”

“As an ombudsman investigating wrong-doing, the PHSO has to work to the highest ethical principles and be judged by these higher standards,” Murphy said.

“If the leadership of the PHSO are sloppy about the details, or worse, look the other way, then that sets dangerously low standards for the rest of the organisation to adhere to. And, when we are talking about an organisation that is the last resort for patients and family members who are seeking the truth often in horrendous circumstances, it is fundamental that they are whiter than white.”

In a statement, the PHSO said: “The Board fully accepts the findings and recommendations and would like to thank Sir Alex Allan for his work.

"We have taken action to avoid this happening again by putting in place processes so advice is sought on all non-casework correspondence which is consistent with our approach for casework and are introducing more robust pre-employment checks.

"Our focus remains on providing a high quality service for people who need our help and to support staff in the important work they do every day."

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