Delay naming new watchdog prompts fears NHS complaints could be held up

Complaints about the NHS could be held up by delays appointing a new watchdog, MPs have been warned.

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) Rob Behrens is due to leave the role when his term expires at the beginning of April, but his replacement has yet to be announced, raising concerns that the post will be left vacant.

In an email to senior Conservative MP William Wragg, PHSO board member Sir Alex Allan warned that “the organisation cannot operate without an Ombudsman in post”.

Sir Alex, the former independent adviser on ministerial interests, said: “Any delay to the appointment puts the organisation at considerable risk. In particular because key casework decisions could not be taken it puts at risk all of the work to reduce the queue and improve service to complainants.”

The former civil servant urged Mr Wragg, as chair of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, to press Number 10 to confirm a candidate to take over from Mr Behrens.

It is understood that a preferred candidate has been identified by an interview panel, but the individual has not yet been agreed by the Prime Minister, meaning a planned pre-appointment hearing with Mr Wragg’s committee had to be postponed.

The PHSO is also understood to be exploring interim arrangements to ensure its work can continue should a new Ombudsman not be appointed in time.

Sir Alex added: “I am aware that, due to the preferred candidate’s notice period, there will be a need to appoint an interim Ombudsman and that the view remains that this should be Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive officer at PHSO.

“We have yet to receive confirmation of this, despite the urgency, which is making it difficult for the organisation to properly plan for leadership change.”

A spokesperson for Mr Wragg’s committee said they were “awaiting confirmation from the Cabinet Office to be able to set a date for the hearing”.

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: “The appointments process is ongoing and following due process. An announcement of a recommended candidate will be made in due course.”

The PHSO investigates complaints that people have been treated unfairly or received poor service from Government departments, public organisations and the NHS in England.

In 2022-23, the Ombudsman managed to halve its backlog of cases from 2,200 to 1,050, but Sir Alex’s email suggests that progress could be reversed if the post remains vacant in April.

A spokesperson for the PHSO said: “The process to appoint a new Ombudsman is ongoing. We are in discussions about interim arrangements should they be needed. Our important service for the public continues.”