Ombudsman seeks straight path: The 'champion of the little man' believes all complaints involving government maladminstration should go directly to his office, putting an end to the 'MPs' filter' system. Chris Blackhurst reports

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The Independent Online
THE OMBUDSMAN, that bastion of last resort for complaints about government and NHS heavy-handedness, bungling and cock-ups, wants his office to be even more accessible to the public.

William Reid, the man charged with dealing with all those broken Charter promises, whose official title is Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, has cases referred to him by MPs. But 150 MPs, nearly a quarter, have never passed on complaints from constituents.

He refuses to name any of the 150 or say if they are mainly from one political party and, although the figure is lower than when he was appointed in 1990, Mr Reid believes it demonstrates the need to remove the 'MPs' filter'.

A doughty, 62-year-old Scotsman, Mr Reid likes to refer to himself as the Ombudsman. 'I am a member of the Council of Tribunals and they refer to me as the Ombudsman. I regard it as a tribute so many other Ombudsmen have been set up.'

However, he goes on: 'I do worry about the confusion it causes and whether they're genuinely independent.' He pauses before adding: 'And before you ask, I won't have anything to do with bastard creations like Ombudsperson.'

From next April, Mr Reid will have a third string to his considerable bow: Open Government referee. Under proposals outlined in the recent White Paper, if you feel a government department is not being as forthcoming as it should, you can contact your MP who can pass on your complaint to Mr Reid.

According to freedom of information campaigners, if other 'open government' regimes are anything to go by, he can expect 1,500 cases alone in his first year. They will join the 1,000 or so he receives as Parliamentary Commissioner and the 1,200 that cross his desk annually as NHS Ombudsman.

In readiness for the new era of openness, he has put in a request to the Treasury for more staff. He is financed from the Consolidated Fund but is answerable solely to MPs, in the shape of the Parliamentary Commissioner Select Committee.

At present, Mr Reid has '113 and a half' people - he is very precise - reporting to him in his offices tucked behind Westminster Abbey. Of these, 45 'and a half' sally forth against the DSS, Inland Revenue, Customs and the rest of the mighty Whitehall machine, 29 dig into accusations of deficiencies at the NHS, and 39 are support staff.

He would like more - not least to bring down the time taken to complete an investigation. On average, non-NHS cases take just over a year, with 45 weeks for NHS cases.

Mr Reid said that, of the non-NHS complaints he looks into, 'about 90 per cent are justified in whole or in part' (50 per cent for the NHS). A frightening figure - 'disappointing' is his word - which makes it all the more alarming that 150 MPs do not seem to know who he is or what he can do. Either their constituents exist in a state of nirvana or, as is more likely, their complaints are not getting through.

At best, in the case of a DSS benefit, he can ensure correct payment is made, with compensation for delay; at worst, he can make the complainant feel that somebody is taking notice. More importantly, he can look at the system, find out what went wrong, tell the department involved and try to prevent a recurrence.

He would like to see the NHS procedure applied across the board and had hoped that the Open Government White Paper would follow the NHS example. But it did not.

Apart from there being too many other Ombudsmen - 'I think they strongly deprecate the word Ombudsman' - and wanting more staff and the filter removed, he would also like more people to know what he does. It would help, for instance, if the official publicity about him was correct. He feels mightily aggrieved - 'scandalous' is how he put it - that in their literature, community health councils advise people to write to him with a complaint about the NHS and give the address of the Local Government Ombudsman, about half a mile away.

Mr Reid would also like us to know that he can open doors in Whitehall that would otherwise remain firmly closed and people can talk to him in confidence. He would like NHS employees to know that they also have open access to him - they can make a complaint about their employer and he will look into it.

There is one other thing that not many people know about him: his services are free.

(Photograph omitted)