MPs attack Whitehall handling of complaints

'Apologies were grudging and had to be invited'
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Indy Politics

Public Policy Editor

Government departments and agencies were condemned by MPs yesterday for encouraging people to complain but then failing either to handle the complaints efficiently or pay proper compensation.

The Employment Service and its chief executive, Mike Fogden; the Child Support Agency; and some aspects of the Departments of Social Security, Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the Lord Chancellor's Department were all criticised by the cross-party Ombudsman Select Committee.

But with complaints to the Ombudsman up 70 per cent in two years and with the Citizen's Charter and other government initiatives encouraging complaints, "it is clear that internal complaints procedures of departments have yet to catch up with the growing willingness to complain", MPs said.

"They have also yet to achieve acceptable standards of complaint handling." When 88 per cent of complaints investigated are found to be wholly or partly justified, departments need to ask themselves why, the committee said, and set targets for the reduction of complaints.

Workload has reached the point where the Ombudsman is not investigating cases which involve "more of the same" - examples of maladministration similar to those where he has already recommended improvements to service.

But the MPs say: "We expect departments to treat all justified complaints similarly, whether investigated by the Ombudsman or not. This includes the provision of adequate compensation and apologies."

William Reid, the Ombudsman, told the committee that some departments' "customer service managers" simply do not live up to their job title. And the Employment Service is singled out for actually "opposing" the Ombudsman and adopting "an automatic assumption ... that all their staff had acted correctly. Apologies were grudging and had often to be invited".

Mike Fogden, the agency's chief executive, said the attitude may have stemmed from the philosophy of "get it right first time" which he had attempted to instil. But he admitted there was a danger that "staff would as a result be unwilling to re-examine their actions and admit mistakes".

Mr Fogden is personally criticised for taking up to a year to comment on draft reports from the Ombudsman. He admitted being "too robust" and "over-protective" of his staff.

The committee has repeated its recommendation that the Child Support Agency appoint a complaints adjudicator because complaints are continuing "unabated" despite recent improvements.

It also says the DSS must think again over providing financial redress where its actions have caused significant worry and distress because it has "intruded on the private affairs of an unsuspecting citizen".

t 4th and 5th Reports of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration; Session 1994-5. HMSO; pounds 15.60.