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Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Health Service Commissioner for England (Appointment)

Volume 620: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2017

[Relevant document: First Joint Report of the Health and Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committees, Appointment of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, HC 810.]

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Robert Fredrick Behrens CBE to the offices of Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Health Service Commissioner for England.

I wish to record the Government’s gratitude to Dame Julie Mellor, who has undertaken the role of ombudsman with great passion and commitment. I also thank her for agreeing to stay in post until her successor has been recruited and is in post. The Government are also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and to the House services for their role in the selection. I am pleased that the process, which has included joint Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and Health Committee pre-appointment scrutiny, has identified an outstanding candidate. The recommendation contained in the report, which was published last Friday following Mr Behrens’s pre-appointment hearing, forms the basis of the Government’s motion, which I commend to the House.

I welcome the Minister’s comments and fully endorse his sentiments. I add the thanks of Her Majesty’s Opposition to the outgoing Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, Dame Julie Mellor. The Minister and I both served as members of the Health Committee, so we know of her hard work. I thank the interview panel, which was chaired by Philippa Helme, Principal Clerk of the Table Office; all the panellists were extremely formidable. I thank the Health Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee for their scrutiny at the pre-appointment hearing.

Mr Behrens is an extremely qualified candidate for the role of parliamentary and health service ombudsman, with all the expectations of that role from the public. He has shown that as the independent adjudicator and chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education, and, more importantly, in his work on the transformation to democratic rule in South Africa, for which he was personally commended by the late President Nelson Mandela and the now Lord Robin Butler. There was also his transformative work as complaints commissioner to the Bar Standards Board of England and Wales, which delivered a review that led to 52 changes in disciplinary and complaints procedures, including a new process of determination by agreement, and in setting up the widely respected civil service fast stream. Her Majesty’s Opposition welcome and endorse the appointment of Mr Rob Behrens CBE and wish him well in his new role.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, or PACAC, was originally established as the Public Administration Committee to receive the reports of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and to scrutinise its performance. This was in the 1960s, long before the establishment of most of today’s departmental Select Committees. Our remit is much wider these days, but PACAC regards our work with the PHSO as one of our most important functions which exemplifies and underpins our purpose as a Committee.

The PHSO exists to receive complaints about maladministration in the public service and in the NHS. “Maladministration” may be an accurate term, but it is not very appealing. However, our role and remit is clear, and our purpose is implied rather than spelled out. Our purpose is to sustain and enhance public confidence in the effectiveness of government, and, working with the PHSO, that is what we have sought to do. We not only receive the PHSO’s reports on behalf of Parliament but actively scrutinise each of them, and the public service that the report is addressing, to make sure that the PHSO’s recommendations are properly heard and followed through by whichever Department they are addressed to. We have become the accountability mechanism that makes the PHSO’s reports and work effective. In the past few months, we have scrutinised PHSO reports such as “Driven to despair: How drivers have been let down by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency”, and “Learning from mistakes: An investigation report by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman into how the NHS failed to properly investigate the death of a three-year old child”. Our report on the latter will be published on 31 January. More recently, we published our report on the PHSO report on unsafe discharge from hospital.

Having been involved in the recruitment process, although I did not take part in the pre-appointment hearing, I would like to welcome Rob Behrens as the new Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. From his time as the independent adjudicator for higher education in England and Wales and as a senior adviser to the European Network of Ombudsmen in Higher Education he has gained considerable experience of complaint handling and a detailed understanding of the role of an ombudsman. I am sure that that will enable him to make a success of his new role. I should point out that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Health Committee were unanimous in approving his appointment; we held a joint pre-appointment hearing.

I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Dame Julie Mellor for all that she has done to take forward the work of the PHSO. She has built on the work of her predecessor with vision and commitment, and under her leadership the PHSO is much more engaged with Parliament than ever before. I thank her for staying at the helm of the PHSO while her replacement was appointed. Under her leadership the PHSO has had to face many challenges, not least a cut of more than 24% in its spending between now and 2020. It has been the target of critical public scrutiny—perhaps it is justified; some of it certainly is—which has made the role a challenging one.

The PHSO is in the middle of a five-year reform plan, and it faces further reform if the Public Service Ombudsman Bill, which the Government have published in draft form, comes into effect. The PHSO must improve the quality and speed of its investigations. It must implement technological change. It must adapt to the way in which people in our society expect a complaints process to work, and it must better retain and engage its staff in order to do so. It must do all that while reducing costs and overheads. The scale of the challenge is significant, but I am confident that Rob Behrens possesses the strong leadership skills, the strategic vision and the judgment, as well as the experience as an ombudsman, to ensure that those challenges are met. PACAC looks forward to working with him as the PHSO continues its work.

It is a pleasure for me to support everything that has been said so far about Dame Julie Mellor and Rob Behrens. It has been a great pleasure working with Julie Mellor over the years, during her term of office. She is indeed a charming and intelligent person. I think that she has had quite a hard time, because of the pressures of getting the work of the ombudsman right. That work will have to continue, obviously. I am looking forward to the reception for Dame Julie in your rooms shortly, Mr Speaker.

As for Rob Behrens, much has been said about his experience. He has a wealth of valuable and varied experience, and his role in South Africa was quite stunning. As a member of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I took part in the confirmation hearing and I was immensely impressed with his performance. He is measured, highly intelligent, precise and thoughtful, and he answered every question in that manner. I think he will do an excellent job of carrying on the role of the ombudsman.

I wanted to speak because I thought it was important that we heard from an Opposition Back Bencher as well as the Front-Bench team and the Chair of our Select Committee, who spoke eloquently about what we have done and on behalf of the present and future ombudsmen. Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to speak. I endorse everything that has been said.

I very much welcome Mr Behrens to his important new appointment. The PHSO is a vital backstop for complaints about the national health service. Its function is clearly vital to our constituents, and I am sure that Mr Behrens is seized of the importance of his new duties.

It seems to me, anecdotally, that the service has become more responsive since 2012. A great deal of credit is due to Dame Julie Mellor for improving the service, but it is only right to record that the Patients Association does not necessarily share that opinion, and has rightly highlighted its shortcomings as it sees them. In particular, it has highlighted the perceived lack of responsiveness of the ombudsman service, and the perception that the PHSO is on the side of organisations, rather than of individuals. I have no way of telling whether that is realistic, but it is important for Dame Julie’s successor to understand such criticisms, and I hope he will seek to work closely with organisations such as the Patients Association in the years ahead.

It is also reasonable to point out failings such as the Morecambe Bay catastrophe. The ombudsman did not handle that terribly well in my view and the view of many people who take an interest in these matters. For the future, I very much hope that Mr Behrens will repeat the review process that his predecessor undertook in 2012 to ensure that the office he holds is maximising its effectiveness—that is a worthwhile undertaking—and that he will consider it carefully.

I hope that Ministers will consider the suggestion made by Sir Bruce Keogh that petitioners might complain to the Care Quality Commission at an intermediary stage, thus relieving some of the burden that falls on the PHSO. Over the years, that burden has been responsible for some of the backlog of cases, and the office has recognised that as a major block in the way of its work and the responsiveness that it is able to offer people who complain to it.

In conclusion, I commend Dame Julie for her work during the past four years. In particular, I congratulate her on doing more with less as she has found that her resources have necessarily been curbed.

We want to commend the recruitment process that has led to this appointment. I always think that the best way to measure how effective any process is is to look at the outcome. Any reasonable person looking at the track record of Rob Behrens will recognise that tribute must be paid to all those involved in this process. When we look at his track record in South Africa or Europe, as has been mentioned, and the range of areas in which he has worked, from higher education to the law, and when we look not only at how he has discharged his roles, but at how in so many of them he has conducted studies and produced reports that have been meaningful and influential, we can all wish him well for the future with great confidence.

Question put and agreed to.