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Holyrood considers nine petitions against Scottish Public Services Ombudsman as Housing Minister dubbed ‘out of touch’ over accusations

09 Sep

alex_neilScottish Government Housing & Communities Minister Alex Neil MSP. A WAR OF WORDS has broken out between a Scottish Government Minister & the Public Services Ombudsman over the performance of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, the independent body which investigates complaints made about public services in Scotland after Housing & Communities Minister Alex Neil MSP spoke in support of eight petitions lodged by constituents at Tuesday’s Petitions Committee hearing at the Scottish Parliament calling for the Scottish Government to commission an independent review of the SPSO.

The petitions, Petition PE1342, Petition PE1343, Petition PE1344, Petition PE1345, Petition PE1346, Petition PE1347, Petition PE1348, & Petition PE1349 all “call on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to commission an independent review of the SPSO to make it more accountable for its performance, including the extent to which its investigations are fair and robust, and to widen its remit, so that it can enforce recommendations that it makes following investigations of the actions of public bodies.”

Meanwhile another petition heard before the above, Petition PE1341 filed by Dr R A Rahman, also “calls on the Scottish Parliament to conduct an annual audit of the public expenditure on the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) and establish public complaint channels to examine the public dissatisfaction at the SPSO in managing complaints raised by members of the public.”

Petition PE1341 filed by Dr R A Rahman calls on the Scottish Parliament to conduct an audit of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (click image below to watch video)

Speaking on Dr Rahman’s petition, Committee Convener Rhona Brankin said : “It is suggested that we contact the SPSO to find out what steps have been taken in relation to expenditure. It is suggested that we also contact the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, the Scottish Government and the Auditor General for Scotland. Is that agreed?”

John Wilson MSP (Central Scotland) replied, stating : “I am not sure whether other members have had the same experience as I have had with the petitioner. I want to put on the record that I have received a number of e-mails from the individual about complaints that he has made against various public bodies and organisations. The petitioner has certainly communicated with me, if not with other members, on the issues.”

“We should at least give the SPSO and the SPCB an opportunity to respond, so that we can find out what is happening and whether we can address the issues. Given the e-mail correspondence, it is clear that the petitioner conducts himself and his campaign against a particular body quite tenaciously. I wanted to make the committee aware of that.”

After a discussion on Dr Rahman’s petition, a transcript of which can be viewed at the Scottish Parliament’s website HERE, and noting the comments expressed regarding Dr Rahman by Committee member John Wilson MSP, the Committee agreed to write to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, Scottish Government, and the Auditor General for Scotland seeking responses to points raised in the petition and during the discussion.

Housing & Communities Minister Alex Neil MSP spoke in support of eight petitions against the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (click image below to watch video)

Invited to speak in support of the additional eight petitions regarding the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, Alex Neil MSP (Central Scotland) (SNP) said to the Petitions Committee : A substantial number of other people could probably have submitted similar petitions. There is a letter of support for the petitions from Murdo Fraser MSP, which is based on his experience with constituents. I know that Michael Matheson MSP is also supportive. I have spoken informally to others who hold the same view.”

“In some cases, the ombudsman has found in favour of the petitioners. The petitions are not sour grapes—they reflect a more fundamental concern about the performance and powers of the ombudsman’s office. I will give one or two examples of how lacking in robustness investigations have been. Unfortunately, they are not isolated examples.”

“It took three and half years for one petitioner’s case to be resolved. Even at the end of that period, the final report was so full of factual inaccuracies that, in her view, it was not worth the paper it was written on. In another case, which was a planning matter, the ombudsman refused to investigate the matter because “it is not the job of a local government planning official to check that the papers going to the planning committee are accurate”. That is a farcical statement by any standard.”

“When another serious case involving a health matter was investigated with one health board, a number of recommendations were made to prevent the same thing happening again. However, a year later, in the same ward of the same hospital in the same health board area, exactly the same thing happened. The ombudsman’s recommendations were not implemented and nothing was done about the lack of implementation, in spite of the fact that that was brought to the ombudsman’s attention.”

“I could go on all day with examples that show that, in my view and in the view of other MSPs and the petitioners, the ombudsman’s office too often fails in its duty and fails to perform adequately. Given that the Parliament spends just under £3.5 million a year to fund the ombudsman’s office, we need a far better return on our money, especially in these days of constraint. To quote one of the petitioners, it is not worth a farthing in terms of the quality of service that petitioners have received.”

“To be fair to the ombudsman, its powers are more limited here than is the case in other countries. That applies both to the circumstances in which it can investigate complaints—which are confined to administrative errors and failure to deliver a service, and do not include injustices that public bodies are alleged to have inflicted on people, as is the case in many other countries—and to the power to implement its recommendations, which is limited. However, the ombudsman is not using effectively the powers that it has. The other big issue is that the ombudsman cannot investigate an incident that did not happen in the previous 12 months, even if the incident happened only 15 or 18 months ago and there was a good reason why it did not to come to the ombudsman earlier.”

Mr Neil concluded his statement to the Petitions Committee saying : “We must bear in mind the fact that the ombudsman is the last resort for people. Most people do not have the money to take public bodies to court, especially if the public body concerned threatens to charge to them its legal expenses, as well as their own, if they lose. People of modest income really rely on the ombudsman to sort out problems that arise. To be frank, the ombudsman is not performing to anything like the required standard. The petitioners, Murdo Fraser, Michael Matheson, other MSPs, many other people who have used the ombudsman and I are strongly of the view that it is time to have a fairly fundamental look at the ombudsman’s performance and powers, with a view to getting far greater return on the £3.5 million of taxpayers’ money that it uses up every year.”

Several Committee members, all from the Scottish National Party made points on the petition, beginning with John Wilson MSP (Central Scotland), who, in a slightly contrasting comment to his reply on the earlier petition regarding the SPSO, apparently not supported by Housing Minister Alex Neil, said : “When the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman was established, the Parliament or Government did not put in place the powers to ensure that the ombudsman’s recommendations were acted on.”

“Mr Neil is right that people genuinely think that the ombudsman can resolve their issues and get answers, if not solutions, to the problems that they have encountered in dealing with public bodies, but they find that, even when the ombudsman’s recommendations are quite strong, the recommendations do not need to be implemented. Public bodies can note the recommendations without implementing them in full. Given that issue with the ombudsman’s powers, I welcome today’s debate as allowing us to take that issue forward to ensure that people can get some satisfaction from public bodies that are supposed to represent and protect them by taking decisive action against public bodies or individuals.”

Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow) said : “The petitioners have done a great public service in lodging the petitions. The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman should be a people’s champion. Someone who came to my office told me that they would go to “The Judge” column in the Sunday Mail before they would go back to the ombudsman. It would be in everyone’s interest, including that of the ombudsman’s office, to review the work and remit of the ombudsman so that we can give people confidence in what the ombudsman does.”

Nigel Don MSP said : “The original idea was that the ombudsman would investigate something and, if he pointed out malpractice, people would say, “Yeah—sorry. Got it wrong. Let’s put it right.” At the end of that, enforcement powers would not be needed. If we ask for enforcement powers, we must recognise—if my memory is right—that we will change the nature of the beast. That worries me, because it will mean in effect building another layer of a kind of court of appeal. In any legal or semi-legal system, we should try to avoid that, because it just means that the persistent litigant has somewhere else to go and that it all gets lost in the churn. I am concerned that we should not lose sight of the concept and try to turn it into something else.”

“It is clear that there is much dissatisfaction with what has gone on—we are all aware of that. Something needs to change, but I am not sure whether that necessarily applies to the enforcement powers. Perhaps the width of the investigative powers or simply the way in which the job is done by people—although I do not want to be personal—needs to change.”

After hearing all the points, the Petitions Committee agreed to write to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, Scottish Government, and the Auditor General for Scotland seeking responses to points raised in these petitions and during the discussion.

Well .. not a bad days work for all concerned.

However, if I could recommend another target for some Scottish Minister to attend the Petitions Committee and call for a review, that would be obviously the Law Society of Scotland, who the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission revealed last year in a report on the Master Insurance Policy, have caused clients to commit suicide. The Law Society of Scotland covered up the deaths, and the SLCC has done nothing about the deaths or the problems which led to the suicides one year after their report was produced. If the Scottish Parliament doesn’t stand on its feet and do something about that, well then … your thoughts would be most appreciated ….

You can read more about the Law Society’s policy on client suicides and the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission’s do nothing approach after discovering it, here : Suicides, illness, broken families and ruined clients reveal true cost of Law Society’s Master Policy which ‘allows solicitors to sleep at night’.

Oddly enough, one year on from the SLCC’s report, not one single MSP out of the 129 serving Scotland has muttered one word on the subject. Life in Scotland is, therefore, very cheap when it comes to dealing with the Master Policy & the Law Society of Scotland …

Jim Martin SPSOJim Martin, Scottish Public Services Ombudsman said Mr Neil was “out of touch”. In response to the events of Tuesday’s Holyrood hearing and the criticisms of Alex Neil, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, Jim Martin issued the following statement : “Mr Neil is clearly out of touch. A full review and overhaul of all of our investigative procedures was carried out and implemented in 2010. There is no longer a backlog of cases; indeed other Ombudsman offices from devolved administrations have visited us to try to learn from our revised working practices.”

“The SPSO he is describing is the SPSO of 18 months ago. I am disappointed that he has not taken the time to bring himself up to date with our current performance. My annual report will be published later this month and should answer the concerns he has raised. “

“We have seen nothing to suggest that our investigations are anything less than robust. It is inevitable that some complainants will disagree with our findings. But that doesn’t make our conclusions or our investigative methods wrong. Inevitably, with each complaint I consider, either the complainant or the body are going to be disappointed.”

“I am not surprised that Mr Neil has taken it upon himself to criticise the SPSO in this manner. He is one of the MSPs that has sought to place undue pressure on this office and is the chief reason I established a protocol for our engagement with MSPs soon after I came to office. I recognise that it is the role of MSPs to champion their constituents’ grievances. However, the desire to sound tough in the eyes of the public must not tempt MSPs to stray into challenging the independence, and indeed, now, the purpose of, this office.”

“We were set up, by the Parliament, as the final stage for complainants. We operate within the laws that the Parliament laid down. There are complaints that, by law, we cannot consider and there are outcomes that, by law, we cannot enforce. Last year saw a Committee review the role and remit of our office, along with all of the offices created by the Parliament. In my view, that Committee review was an appropriate forum in which Mr Neil could voice his views.”

“For our part, we have sought and we continue to seek a closer relationship with the Parliament. We will continue to do that, despite this unwelcome distraction from our work.”

Now if only some other elements of Scottish legal society could gain such attention from the Petitions Committee, instead of having the situation where the Law Society of Scotland come in and order the Petitions Committee to close petitions which may affect its policy of protecting the truly guilty among us ….

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