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COMPLAINTS ABOUT MALADMINISTRATION BY GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS AND OTHER PUBLIC BODIES

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In his Annual Report for 2001-02 published today, the parliamentary ...
In his Annual Report for 2001-02 published today, the parliamentary

ombudsman, Michael Buckley, said that he had received 2,139 complaints about maladministration by government departments and other public bodies. This was an increase of 24% over last year and the highest intake ever. A total of 1988

cases were concluded during the year: of these, 781 complaints were

resolved informally and 195 statutory investigations were completed.

The ombudsman also received 34 complaints that information had been

wrongly withheld under the Code of Practice on Access to Government

Information, and 7846 general enquiries from members of the public.

Pattern of complaints

Complaints against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)

accounted for the largest number of complaints against a single

department. Of the 693 complaints received, 472 were against the

Benefits Agency (BA) and 187 against the Child Support Agency (CSA).

Several complaints related to claims for disability or

incapacity-related benefits. They covered such things as arranging

for a sign language interpreter for a medical examination, inadequate

medical examinations and poor quality reports, the conduct of an

examining medical practitioner, and misdirection about entitlement to

invalid care allowance. CSA cases often involved delay in making

child support maintenance assessments, and failures to take

enforcement action and collect maintenance.

206 complaints were received against the Inland Revenue, slightly

fewer than the previous year. 35 complaints related to the Revenue's

treatment of widowers who had sought a payment equivalent to the

Widow's Bereavement Allowance. The ombudsman accepted a

representative case for investigation but suspended action once it

became clear that relevant issues were to be considered by the

courts.

42 complaints were received against HM Customs and Excise, an

increase on the previous year. Some of that increase related to

complaints from travellers about Customs' action against suspected

tobacco smugglers. A particular cause for complaint was the seizure

of private vehicles along with the goods when travellers fell foul of

the guidelines for bringing tobacco into the UK for their personal

use. The ombudsman became concerned that travellers should have clear

information about their entitlements and their right to ask Customs

to review their decisions. He also considers that Customs should take

humanitarian considerations into account when a vehicle is seized.

Following one investigation, Customs mounted a publicity campaign to

explain the penalties faced by smugglers and revised their practice

in respect of travellers who did not have the means to complete their

journey home.

Equitable Life

Sir Michael said that there were particular difficulties relating to

complaints he had received about the prudential regulation of the

Equitable Life Assurance Society. Commenting on the criticism he had

faced in parliament and the media for deferring a decision on whether

to investigate some of those complaints until the Penrose Inquiry,

set up by the government, had reported, Sir Michael said, 'I do not

agree with the critics. It seems to me plainly inefficient, and

potentially unfair, to have two simultaneous but separate

investigations covering much the same ground and taking evidence from

much the same sources.' The ombudsman added that he had drawn the

attention of the Select Committee on Public Administration to what he

saw as the root cause of the problem the failure of the authorities

to establish at the outset a single inquiry with terms of reference

covering all aspects of the Equitable Life affair.

Railtrack

The ombudsman received 19 complaints about the manner in which the

secretary of state for transport caused Railtrack plc to be placed in

administrative receivership. Given the department's announcement that

it was speeding up the process of bringing Railtrack out of

administration, and the preparations by a group of Railtrack

shareholders to take proceedings in the high court, Sir Michael had

decided not to initiate an investigation for the time being.

Individual Learning Accounts

The ombudsman reported that he had received complaints about the

alleged failure by the Department for Education and Skills to design

and operate proper controls to safeguard the Individual Learning

Accounts scheme against fraud and abuse. The complaints came mostly

from learning providers who said that they had based their business

plans on expectations of income from the scheme for some years ahead,

and who were looking for compensation for the scheme's early closure

in November 2001. A sample of cases is now under investigation and

should be completed later in 2002.

Freedom of Information

The ombudsman said that his office would retain responsibility for

policing the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information

until the Freedom of Information Act 2000 came fully into effect in

2005. Sir Michael voiced his concern that in November 2001, for the

first time, the government rejected his recommendation that

information should be released under the Code. His report to

Parliament 'Declarations made under the Ministerial Code of Conduct'

(HC353) set out the facts of the case. Sir Michael said, 'I hope that

the government will in future accept my recommendations, as they and

their predecessors have in the past. I am seriously concerned at the

hardening of attitudes in departments. If this is not reversed, it

will raise serious doubts as to whether it is appropriate for the

ombudsman to continue to investigate complaints under the Code.' The

Select Committee on Public Administration has said that it will take

evidence on that and another high profile Code case on 11 July.

That second case relates to the release of information to a

journalist about a telephone call that was alleged to have taken

place between the then home office minister, Mike O'Brien, and

Peter Mandelson. Sir Michael said that he had become

increasingly concerned at the difficulties being placed in his way in

conducting some of his investigations. In particular, it had become

apparent that in some cases departments were resisting the release of

information not because they had a strong case under the Code for

doing so, but because to release the information could cause them

embarrassment or political inconvenience.

Notes

1. The Parliamentary Ombudsman, Annual Report 2001-02, HC 897

2. Copies of the reports are available here.

3. The ombudsman investigates complaints from members of the

public, referred by MPs, against government departments and other

public bodies. More details are given on his website.

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