Ombudsman flays Whitehall over staff cuts

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The Government's dramatic reduction in civil-service numbers is likely to lead to more complaints and more maladministration, William Reid, the Ombudsman, said yesterday as he reported another record year for complaints.

At the same time, privatisation and the contracting-out of civil-service functions risks depriving citizens of their right to have complaints investigated.

Complaints rose by 70 per cent in two years to 1,706, and are forecast almost to double to 3,300 in 1998, says the Ombudsman's annual report. Since 1992 the Government has slashed civil-service numbers from 550,000 to below 500,000 and more big cuts are planned.

"Reductions in staff numbers, organisational changes and new working practices will continue for some time to place individual civil servants under stress," Mr Reid said.

"There is a risk that fewer staff will lead to both slower service to the public and to more mistakes, because civil servants will have less time for thought to enable them to pursue considered and prudent action. I doubt whether automation and technology will compensate fully for cuts in human resources."

His warning came as almost all departments and agencies are facing staff cuts or freezes, and the Department of Social Security - Mr Reid's biggest customer, accounting for almost half the 1,700 complaints he received last year - plans cuts aimed at increasing its efficiency by 25 per cent over three years. A service already subject to much criticism may become "even less good", he said.

Already social security appeal tribunals were being postponed because government presenting officers were failing to turn up on the day, he said.

Contracting-out is taking some services outside his remit, Mr Reid added - Job Clubs, for example, and television licensing, which is now a matter for the BBC.

While complaints did not have to be investigated by his office, Mr Reid said, an assessment was needed of whether proper methods remained for investigating complaints and providing redress.

Of the 245 complaints that were fully investigated, maladministration was found in 236 cases and thousands of pounds of compensation have been paid out - pounds 10,000 and more in some cases.

n Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, Annual Report 1995. HMSO pounds 11.85