Ask the average man on the street about the NHS complaint system and they will have something to say, albeit derogatory.  Ask them about the Health Service Ombudsman and most will say, ‘Who?’  The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, (PHSO) to give them their full title, is the Cinderella of the regulatory system.  They sit at the apex of the complaint process and are the final arbitrators, although keen to inform you that they are not ‘regulators’.

Since the demise of the Healthcare Commission in 2009 the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has provided the second and final tier in the NHS complaint process.  If the NHS trust has given you the run-around, denied evidence and manipulated the facts, then once you finish with their complaint process you can go to the Ombudsman free of charge.   On their website you will see that:

“Our role is to investigate complaints that individuals have been treated unfairly or have received poor service from government departments and other public organisations and the NHS in England.”

They work to “put things right”

Given that the Ombudsman is both ‘independent’ and ‘impartial’ it may be with a sigh of relief that you collect together once again all your evidence and submit a logical and eloquent account of your complaint.  Finally, someone will take action and ‘put things right’.  But when the Ombudsman arrives on her white charger, who’s side will she be on?

The present Ombudsman is Dame Julie Mellor who was appointed in 2012  as the new face of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.  Their own research confirms that 64% of the public believe that making a complaint will make no difference.  Why the lack of confidence in a free, impartial and independent complaint body?  Partly this is due to their low public profile.  52% of people questioned for a Which?  survey released in March this year, did not even know that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman existed.   Of those who did complain half (49%) felt their complaint was ignored.   49% is a surprisingly low figure, as they actually ignore a lot more cases than that every year.  Let’s look at the figures.

In 2012 -13 of the 4,889 complaints submitted to the Ombudsman 3,914  (80%) were dismissed with no action taken.  Only 384  (7.9%) were given the formal investigation headlined on the Ombudsman’s website.  For 80% making a complaint had made no difference, as their complaint was ‘resolved’ without any direct action and no investigation.

For 80% of complainants, nothing was ‘put right’.

The Health Service Ombudsman did not uncover the scandal at Mid Staffs, turning away Julie Bailey’s complaint without an investigation.  Neither did it work quickly to investigate the poor practice at Morecambe Bay maternity unit where James Titcombe’s baby son died unnecessarily.  They turned his complaint down as well.

You can of course ask for a review if you are not satisfied with the handling of your complaint.   Reviews are carried out internally by the ‘review team’ who rarely find fault with the original assessment process.  When you are allowed to mark your own homework like this it is possible for the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to state that they only have to correct their decisions 0.4% of the time. (Annual Resource Account) This gives them an amazing 99.6% accuracy rate.

What of the lucky few who had investigations and 85% were at least partially upheld.  Were they satisfied that complaining had ‘made a difference’.  Sadly no.  A common complaint is that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman  ignored major issues and focused instead on minor breaches, gave excuses for faults in service delivery and found all kinds of poor practice ‘reasonable’.  When they did agree that maladministration occurred they offered derisory compensation or low level recommendations for improvements, which were not followed up to ensure implementation.  As an example a young man incapacitated by an NHS mistake; now paralysed and needing round the clock care was offered £3,500 by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman on upholding his case.  Another man in his mid-thirties suffered a nervous breakdown following maladministration by Ofqual which prevented him taking up employment with a large company.  PHSO upheld his case and suggested a payment of £750 although he is still out of work.  Big deal.


PHSO regularly let NHS trusts and public bodies off the hook with no sanctions whatsoever.  You may be surprised to learn that when the Ombudsman lifts her mighty sword to smite the enemy, it is the complainant who gets clobbered.

Presently the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman is totally unaccountable.  Technically they are accountable by judicial review for their decisions but in the entire history of the Ombudsman only one case has ever been found against them and most are dismissed before they even come to court.  They are accountable to the Parliamentary Administration Select Committee  chaired by Bernard Jenkin for their service delivery, but the committee has no powers to review individual cases or give binding recommendations.

The Health Service Ombudsman, supposedly designed to protect the citizens from the abuse of power is the worst offender of abuse.  Arrogant and indifferent they treat complainants with impunity knowing they are safe behind the law. 

A group of individual complainants have joined together to create the PHSO Pressure Group.   We believe that all complainants should have an impartial investigation, as promised on the Ombudsman website.  We are looking at making changes in legislation so that the public can hold the Ombudsman to account for poor service delivery.  You can visit our website here: phsothefacts  and find out more by reading this excellent account from Scriptonite.

The Health Service Ombudsman is unfortunately not our knight in shining armour.  In fact the Ombudsman is no more than a dustbin for persistent complaints.  Don’t waste a stamp – complaining to this body really does

‘make no difference’.

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  1. Jill Mizen says:

    Spot on, I confirm the foregoing having followed the NHS complaints procedure without success since 2007. Still not being told why the “system failure” my complaint highlighted has not been dealt with. Instead my papers have been destroyed in line with the PHSO retention and disposal policy, but no one will tell me what the policy is, surely they must keep papers longer than a month!

    1. dms91 says:

      Thank you for posting this. The article hits the nail squarely on the head! The PHSO is definately not our knight in shining armour but is a dustbin for complaints.
      Like you I have been seeking resolution for years, on the death of my son. I have had a letter from PHSO telling me the Trust admit they failed but she wont investigate as “not enough notes available”….isnt that the investigation WHY NOT?

      My son is dead but the Senior Management Team (SMT) from the Trust are still working in NHS as Directors and Deputy Chief Executive… fact the public body NHS London (SHA) which “granted” me an SUI investigation also employed the erranht CEO. BTW the “timely” Serious Untoward Incident (SUI) investigation was “granted” 6 YEARS after my son’s death.

      I am deeply concerned that the PHSO is concentrating on investigating corporate bodies NOT Public ones. I believe previous PHSO spent 4 and a half years looking at Equitable Life
      yet when a departing PHSO case manager left an “unremedied injustice” on my file it was ignored and PHSO wont explain why!

      This public body costs us in excess of £32m per annum for less that 2% of complaints investigated…..that 98%+ left univestigated! SHAMEFUL!!!!

      1. The Ombudsman has the powers of a high court judge to demand paperwork is submitted yet she hasn’t used these powers once in the last three years.

    2. Caroline says:

      Jill, I have it in writing somewhere that they are supposed to keep the papers for fourteen months if I remember correctly. At least this was the case in 2010. But for some reason they threw my ‘bundle’ back at me like a hot brick, saying “We don’t investigate council’s”. Yet I was told by OFSTED that they have to if a case is linked to Social Services. In fact it was Ofsted who advised me to send it to the PHSO in the first place. The caseworker at the PHSO was called Mr Whader (ever heard of him?) I call him Darth for short. He sent my bundle back telling me to ‘communicate with the offending organisation for longer’. I had already communicated with them for one whole year. This is just a ‘ruse’ to get you to give up, and if it does go back at a later date, it won’t be to them.

      1. Ombudsman speak with forked-tongue.

    3. Delay, deny, defend. PHSO are the masters in the ‘toxic cocktail’.

  2. Jane Frost says:

    Dame Julie Mellor doesn’t appear to be a Kathryn Hudson.

    That’s Kathyrn Hudson who used to work for the PHSO – and became the independent Parliamentary Commissioner who eventually unseated Minister Maria Miller – despite the Parliamentary Standards Commitee.

    Will Dame Julie Mellor ever stand up to negligent organisations in the manner of Kathryn Hudson?

    1. Not while PHSO can ‘mark their own homework’. This group are totally unaccountable.

      1. dms91 says:

        A huge conflict of interest going on! AND Discretionary Powers not used for public good but for PHSO convenience!

  3. Martin Rathfelder says:

    The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman say they are now investigating more complaints about NHS and government bodies than ever before

    1. dms91 says:

      How? Is DJM saying previous PHSO was doing things wrong? Like using the term “worthwhile outcome” inappropriately?….which she did!!

  4. But if they were always right before, how can they be suddenly finding more to investigate? There must be a hell of a lot of miffed complainants who were told they were wrong. The HSO can’t have been right then, AND now. What’s going on?

    1. It can only be the case that valid complaints were turned away without investigation. We have evidence of this with Julie Bailey and James Titcombe. You can’t get more valid than that! They may be investigating more cases, but they are upholding far fewer, so your disappointment is just deferred down the line.

      1. dms91 says:

        Julie Bailey and James Titcombe had to endure much to get their cases noted. Maybe the currant campaign by Conner Sparrowhawk’s family will succeed and Connor’s Mum Sara is a star Read the case here: The press MUST use our experiences to highlight this injustice! PHSO (like most of Parliament) is BIG on reviews!But implementation is another matter!

    2. dms91 says:

      “Miffed” is one word for it. I am one of those complainants who has been seeking resolution for almost 9 years. Have been bounced around the system, with implied promise of resolution! If fact an “unremedied injustice” flag was put on my file by departing phso case worker…..current PHSO ignoring it and keeps stating “case remains closed” whenever I seek answers!

  5. dms91 says:

    From an article in Health Service Journal: The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has achieved a five-fold increase in the number of complaints it investigates about the NHS and government departments.

    The ombudsman, which is the final step for people who want to complain about being treated unfairly or receiving poor service from the NHS in England, or a UK government department or agency, investigated 2,199 cases in 2013/14 compared to 384 the previous financial year.

    Almost 80 per cent of these investigations were about the NHS and the rest were about UK government departments and their agencies.

    Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Julie Mellor said: “Last year, following feedback from people who use our service, we made important changes to how we work, which has allowed us to help more people with their complaints and become a more efficient organisation. This is just the beginning and by improving our processes further we are aiming to investigate 4,000 cases by the end of 2014-15.”


  6. patricia allenby says:

    Spot on! They promise the earth, deliver nothing!!! Do nothing!! I have been left to die by NHS and this ombudsman was useless!! I now am in final stages of Cervical Spondylosis, with worsening symptoms everyday, it’s game over for me! I am dying. NHS stands for NO Health Service me thinks!!!
    I have been abused by A&E staff, and ward staff, just cos they know nothing about spinal cord injury!!
    Pathetic NHS!!

  7. Maz says:

    PHSO isn’t the last stage of complaints. You can apply to the clinician’s regulatory body or if you know the law and are able to prove negligence, then sue the nhs! PHSO are not doing ‘ what it says on the tin’….

    1. All the regulatory bodies are closed shops there primarily to protect the members. You are unlikely to get any joy there. You can of course sue the NHS provided the Ombudsman hasn’t put you out of time. But the NHS put top lawyers on the case and use intimidation to frighten individuals to close down their cases or risk bankruptcy. Not an easy route to take. Also if there is no ‘money’ in your case in the way of compensation it is very difficult to get legal representation.

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