Acting Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

– in the House of Commons am 9:15 pm ar 25 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

[Relevant Documents: Written evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, on Pre-appointment Hearing: The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, reported to the House on 21 March 2024, HC 558.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that His Majesty will appoint Rebecca Hilsenrath to the offices of acting Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and acting Health Service Commissioner for England, in accordance with section 3A of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 and paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 to the Health Service Commissioners Act 1993.—(Alex Burghart.)

Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee 9:29, 25 Mawrth 2024

At this juncture of the evening, at the risk of making myself even more unpopular with colleagues, I intend to speak briefly to the motion. I was prepared to allow the Minister at least five minutes for an exposition of why we are in this situation and to happily take the remaining 85, but I might be more charitable for the sake of colleagues.

The motion as it appears on the Order Paper is seemingly innocuous, but behind it there is a short story to be told—one that very few are aware of. The saga, if I may call it that, of the appointment of a new Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman for England began in the summer of last year. An appointments panel was assembled, of which I was a member. The second permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care, an independent member and the former president of the International Ombudsman Institute were also members, and the panel was ably chaired by Philippa Helme, late of this parish—as many of us will remember, she was a senior Clerk. We went about our business diligently, sifting through an initial 52 applications for the role, longlisting and shortlisting. We then took on a day’s interviewing during which we interviewed four candidates. We judged three of them to be appointable, and put forward a recommended name to the Prime Minister.

I am sure we are all aware, but I shall repeat it to refresh our memory, that “The Cabinet Manual” makes it very clear in paragraph 5.40 that

“The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, known as the Parliamentary Ombudsman, is an officer of the House of Commons appointed by the Crown and is independent of the Government. In recognition of the Ombudsman’s relationship with Parliament, the House now leads on the recruitment to the role.”

Unfortunately, the name put forward—I am not going to say that person’s name, so as to protect their privacy at this juncture—has seemingly been declined by No. 10. Given that No. 10 was notified of the name in January and it is now March, some time has elapsed, during which it would surely have been possible to confer that seal of approval.

Clearly, things are now more topical, given last week’s report from the ombudsman on the women’s stage pension age. Maybe that has sharpened the focus, but in winding up the debate—if we can call it that—might my very able hon. Friend the Minister for the constitution, in whose hands the constitution of this country is always safe and sound, be able to elaborate on what has happened? Why is there the need to appoint a temporary ombudsman? I have absolutely no problem at all with Rebecca Hilsenrath, who is the chief executive of the organisation; I am sure she will do a splendid job. None the less, it is somewhat irregular that after a recruitment process lasting several months in which proper procedures have been followed, it seems that No. 10 is not prepared to recognise the recommended name from the recruitment panel. Could my hon. Friend explain?

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 9:33, 25 Mawrth 2024

I thank Mr Wragg for his introduction, and we look forward to more information coming forward.

We support the motion to appoint an acting Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. The post of the PHSO combines the two statutory roles of parliamentary commissioner for administration and health service commissioner for England. As Members of this House, we all know the important role that the ombudsman plays in our system to provide an independent complaint handling service. The PHSO makes final decisions after complaints that Government Departments, a range of other public bodies in the UK or the NHS in England have not acted properly or fairly, or have provided a poor service. The findings from the PHSO’s casework are shared with Parliament to help its scrutiny of public service providers and, more widely, to help drive improvements in public services.

I put on record my thanks to Philippa Helme, the recruitment lead and chair of the recruitment panel, and her panel for their work in identifying and interviewing candidates. The whole House will want to wish the acting ombudsman, Rebecca Hilsenrath, who is also the chief executive officer of the PHSO, well while the search for her new boss is finalised.

I know that Members on both sides will want to send their thanks and best wishes to Rob Behrens, the outgoing ombudsman, for his sterling work leading the PHSO since 2017. I remember him at Coventry Polytechnic back in the day. Rob has an outstanding record of public service, investigating suspected failures in our public services and helping people seek redress. We only have to read his recent interview with The Guardian to appreciate his dedication to the families and victims of public maladministration, particularly in the NHS. In it, he raised concerns about a “cover-up culture” in the NHS that leads to avoidable deaths and families being denied the truth about their loved ones, arguing that whistleblowers are being victimised and that Ministers and NHS leaders are doing too little to change the organisation’s culture.

The ombudsman has also been in the news this last week, because he has published his final report into communication about changes in the state pension age for women born in the 1950s, which meant that some women born in the 1950s had very little notice of an increase in their state pension age, and therefore fewer years to prepare and plan. This is a serious report that requires serious consideration. The PHSO has rightly said that it is for the Government to respond, and we will continue to press them to do so.

These recent news stories highlight the high-profile work of the ombudsman, but we know that Members refer cases to the service day in and day out, trying to get redress for problems with our public services that have affected our constituents’ lives. The ombudsman is an important and vital tool for people across our country who are trying to get answers and recourse. I hope that we will soon debate a motion on the permanent replacement for Mr Behrens, and I look forward to the House panel completing its work.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 9:37, 25 Mawrth 2024

At the outset, I would like to pay tribute to the outgoing ombudsman, Rob Behrens CBE, who steps down at the end of this month after serving the statutory maximum term of seven years. I would like to thank him for the great work he has done to transform the PHSO. For example, he has improved complaint handling, established an independent expert advisory panel to inform decision making, and set up Europe’s first ombudsman academy to build capability. He has also introduced new ways of working, including mediation in casework. On this House’s behalf, I praise Rob for his achievements and wish him all the very best for the future.

The campaign to recruit a new ombudsman commenced at the beginning of October 2023. The House-appointed recruitment panel made a recommendation to the Prime Minister in January, as my hon. Friend Mr Wragg said a few moments ago. This is an important and high-profile role, so it is very important that the process takes as long as is necessary to appoint the right person. Until then, and to ensure continuity for the PHSO, it is necessary to appoint an acting commissioner. Mr Behrens had reached the end of the statutory maximum term of seven years, so it is necessary for us to have an acting commissioner before a final appointment is made.

The Government very much support Rebecca Hilsenrath’s appointment to this role, as we believe she has the ability and experience to lead the PHSO until a new ombudsman is appointed. She joined the PHSO as director of external affairs, strategy and communications in 2021, and she was appointed its chief executive officer in July 2023.

Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

The question for my hon. Friend is: will the Prime Minister sign off on the name that was put to him by the recruitment panel in January?

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

That will be a matter for the Prime Minister. As my hon. Friend will have heard me say a few moments ago, it is very important that this process is followed thoroughly and diligently to make sure that the correct appointment is made.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

I also want to put on the record my thanks to Mr Rob Behrens, not least for the way he supported one of my constituents. However, my concern is that the Minister and the Prime Minister have had plenty of time to review the appointment. By putting an interim person in place, there will be disruption when a new person comes into place. Does the Minister not also recognise that there is much work to be done in reducing the number of complaints and addressing the real needs of our constituents, who need redress for the serious issues they are raising?

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that this is an extremely important role. That is why, in looking for a temporary head, we have chosen someone with an enormous amount of experience within the ombudsman itself. There will be no disruption; there will be great continuity. She points to the amount of time it is taking to sign off the role. While I appreciate that she would like to have it now, looking back, the appointment of Mr Behrens seven years ago took almost a year, so it is not unusual for appointments to take more than a couple of months. With that said, in accordance with section 3A of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 and paragraph 2 of schedule 1 to the Health Service Commissioners Act 1993, I commend Rebecca Hilsenrath to the House for the role of acting commissioner.

Question put and agreed to.