A Ministry for Complaints might sound like something out of Monty Python, but if it improves public services, bring it on

I am still waiting for a refund I claimed from a train company a year ago

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Leaders regularly proclaim their support for giving more power to the people. The proclamations are accompanied by a lot of waffle, and ill-thought-through, vaguely defined policies.

The disparity between leaders’ support for the idea of empowerment and the reality on the ground is especially obvious when people using public services try to complain about them. Quite often nothing happens. Their complaints are lost in complex procedural structures or are treated by providers as an awkward intervention that will go away if the protestations are ignored. Complainers feel powerless – as impotent as those who seek cheaper fuel bills in a flawed energy market.

Complacency and indifference to complaints was one of the many depressing findings from the inquiries into the shocking events at the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. Relatives of patients tried to protest about appalling mistreatment but secured no adequate response, and in some cases got no response at all. They had no power.

Triggered by the Mid Staffs saga, the Public Administration Committee has published a review of complaints, and considered what can be done to empower those who seek to register concern. The chair, Bernard Jenkin, is better known for being an ardent Eurosceptic and also for his scepticism about David Cameron’s leadership. But as chair of the committee he has accomplished more substantial work.

The committee’s earlier proposals to modernise the Civil Service have informed the urgent work that Francis Maude has carried out in the area of Civil Service reform. And the proposals were also the theme of a weighty, impressive debate in the Lords earlier this year involving a number of big names who used to work in the Civil Service as well as former cabinet ministers. Most of them were broadly supportive of the need for reform along the lines the Committee had suggested. Now Jenkin’s committee focuses on a related issue: how to complain effectively.

In both cases, no doubt unintentionally, the committee’s focus makes an important wider point about the stifling debate over public service reform, one that has been distorted by banalities. The distortion began when Tony Blair characterised the debate about his plans for public services as “reform versus anti-reform”, with the implication that those who opposed his costly and sometimes unworkable proposals for public services were against change of any kind whatsoever. Rightly seeing an opportunity, Cameron declared that he agreed with Blair and was also “pro-reform” – as if there were only one set of changes available to bring about improvement.

As things turned out, Cameron was the first to challenge this deceptive narrative in his response to the inquiry into Mid Staffs, outlining the need for a number of reforms that had nothing to do with “choice” or “markets”, previously the only acceptable definition of change. Instead Cameron focused on pulling levers in order to bring about improvements in services, an altogether different emphasis. He proposed the suspension of hospital boards for serious care failures, performance-related pay for nurses, a new chief inspector of hospitals modelled on the Ofsted inspection agency for schools, and an inquiry into hospitals with the highest mortality rates nationwide. In doing so he illustrated that change in public services can take many forms.

Jenkin and his committee have suggested other changes, including the introduction of a new minister for complaints. The proposal sounds like something out of Monty Python. But such a move, along with other recommendations that aim to simplify procedures, would focus minds in public services. Providers would know that pretty quickly the concerns of patients, parents and the rest could be receiving national attention. Such forms of accountability mean that a casual dismissal of complaints becomes less likely.

Nonetheless I have three complaints about Jenkin’s report. It should have at least acknowledged the problems of getting complaints addressed when private companies enjoy a monopoly. I am still waiting for a refund that I claimed from a train company in January of last year. I have given up. The committee also fails to acknowledge that real-terms spending cuts will lead to problems for users of public services that can only be addressed by the Chancellor, not by a middle-ranking minister for complaints.

Above all, the earlier public service reforms, designed – in theory – to empower users, make it much more difficult to identify responsibility. They therefore make users powerless. Is the failure of a hospital the responsibility of NHS England? The Health Secretary? The hospital managers? How do parents complain if they disapprove of activities in newly fashionable free schools? Is it the local council which is responsible if streets are filthy? Or does blame lie with the private companies that are supposed to keep them clean? Lines are so blurred, layers of responsibility so convoluted, that complaining would be a mountainous challenge even if there were a cabinet full of ministers for complaints.

Even so, if complaining becomes even a little more effective, users will be genuinely empowered and services will improve.

MPs are dangerously IN touch

The outcome of the Nigel Evans’ trial has generated a new anti-politics hysteria in which Westminster is portrayed as uniquely debauched.

For sure, there are plenty of people at Westminster who are hyper-ambitious, work long hours, drink, have affairs. The same applies to media organisations or any company. The idea that there is a “Westminster bubble” is a dangerous myth. Those who refer loftily to the bubble not  only imply that Westminster is a place of recklessness and decadence, but also suggest that the people who work there are disconnected and out of touch.

Most of those who work at Westminster are dangerously IN touch. Unlike editors, chief executives and those in other bubbles floating around the country, they have to stand for election. They pay attention to polls, listen to focus groups and read newspapers. They go back to their constituencies and meet constituents.

The talking points in the so-called bubble are not that far removed from those outside it. If anything, modern politicians are so in touch that they are too scared to say what they think and do what they regard as necessary, although the early radicalism of the Coalition was a rare example of ministers following their convictions.

It’s an irony that as politicians adjust their views to respond to the voters and the media, they become less authentic and voters turn away.

Perhaps politicians  would be more popular if there was a “Westminster bubble” protecting those inside it from knowing  what voters think  about them.

I am going to start a campaign for a Westminster bubble.

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