Grievances against civil servants soar

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Complaints about government maladministration reached their highest level for 12 years last year, William Reid, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, said yesterday.

His office carried out 208 investigations into complaints, of which just 4 per cent proved to be unjustified. The worst offender was the Department of Social Security, which accounted for 30 per cent of all cases passed on to the Ombudsman by MPs. Next came the Inland Revenue (16 per cent), followed jointly by the departments of the environment and transport.

Two of the biggest targets for grievances in the past, the Department of Employment and the Ministry of Defence, recorded 'significantly fewer complaints'.

Mr Reid said the figures pointed to a decline in standards among civil servants. 'They don't reply to letters, they are rude on the phone, they lose files, they make decisions that are not honourable decisions,' he said, adding the problem did not merely concern those at the sharp end in DSS and tax offices but higher up at managerial level.

Another reason for the increased number of investigations, he said, was the Citizen's Charter. 'There are now so many charter documents letting people know where they should complain.'

If there was a common thread it was lack of training and some civil servants 'having rather more regard for the financial aspects of their administration rather than the qualitative. I do find some people are not fully attuned to the need to serve the public.'

He urged the Government to 'try and ensure standards are improved'. For the first time he produced a 15-point check-list of behaviour which, in his opinion, constituted maladministration. It includes: rudeness, unwillingness to treat the complainant as a person with rights, refusal to answer reasonable questions, knowingly giving misleading or inadequate advice, offering no redress, showing bias, adhering rigidly to the letter of the law when that results in inequitable treatment.

One of the worst cases was at the Ministry of Agriculture, where officials mishandled claims for compensation from farmers whose poultry stocks were compulsorily slaughtered. Mr Reid cited it as one of the occasions when junior employees were not to blame - decisions were taken at ministerial level not to inform farmers of their entitlement.

Looking ahead, Mr Reid said he hoped the Government's push for open government would lead to greater openness in dealing with people and their complaints. Next month, his office begins following up complaints from people denied access to personal documents and files.

So far, he said, despite the blaze of publicity, there had been 'a lot of apathy', with just one case so far. However, he expects that to change as soon as the government guidelines on how to bring complaints are published.