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
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
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.
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.
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.