Public Services Ombudsman pledges to ‘transform’ complaints system in Northern Ireland

The Public Services Ombudsman has said she wants to “transform” the complaints system in Northern Ireland to make it easier for people to raise concerns and improve services.

It follows the release of a damning report that families were ‘seriously disappointed’ when they raised concerns about failings at Dunmurry Manor care home.

An independent review by CPEA – a social care, health and management consultancy – found that some trusted staff and managers did not believe the complaints were factually correct.

There has been particular criticism of bodies such as the Patient and Client Council (PCC) and nursing home watchdog RQIA.

Ombudsman Margaret Kelly said a review of public services would cover education, health and social services, housing, central government and local government.

She told the program that it was crucial that bodies such as the PCC and the RQIA were not “arm’s length” but entirely independent of the Ministry of Health.

She told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster: ‘Unfortunately I think this review reflects the situation of many people who complain about public services.

“I think it’s confusing and complex. I think a lot of people find it distressing and stressful. And I would have people coming into my office who might have spent two years or more getting around a complaints system and trying to find an answer or trying to settle something for their parent.

“So I think it’s a system that really needs to be transformed and I think unfortunately the experience of the families at Dunmurry Manor and the CPEA report really underscores that.”

She added: ‘I think I keep seeing, not just in health and social services but in all public services, people trying to complain, to get something fixed soon enough and most people tell me that when they complain, what they want is to be listened to, to have it fixed and to ask someone to apologize.

“And unfortunately I still see a lot of people bypassing that complaints system and that’s why we want to change, not just the system but also the culture.

‘So we want to change the complaints system across all utilities so that it’s a two-step system: the first stage being five days, which gives utilities a chance to sort out something very early; and for more complex cases, a second 20-day investigation stage during which the service needs come back to the person and explain to them what they are going to do.

“It makes things really simple and straightforward. But the other part of it is that we’re going to work with senior utility leaders to say, listen, a complaint is an opportunity for you, it’s an opportunity to build trust with the people you provide a service, it’s an opportunity to find out what’s wrong with your service and fix it early on.

“And this is an opportunity to improve services.”

As Mediator, Mrs. Kelly wishes to facilitate the filing of complaints but also to see services improve.

Ms Kelly concluded by saying it would be a long-term process, which also happened in Scotland and took several years. It will start with local government and look at health and social care with a focus on the care sector.

The CCP said it has been undergoing significant changes since July 2019. It has refocused on its legislative functions and how it performs them.

In response to the release of the report, Patient and Client Council Chief Executive Vivian McConvey said: “I regret that the support provided to families at the time was insufficient.

“As the new incoming CEO of the CCP in April 2019, our response to the Dunmurray Manor care home report was one of the first issues I dealt with in my first week on the job.

“I met with the families to facilitate feedback on the progress of the EAPC and to understand the learning for the PCC, then I had further discussions with the EAPC with the goal of improving our service now and don’t wait.

“Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility. Vulnerable people are only safe when we listen with our heads, hearts and hands. We need to create opportunities to hear, understand and then act.”

The RQIA accepted the report’s recommendations and said that over the past 18 months it had undergone a process of change and transformation, driven by the findings of the Home Truths report and the dialogue that followed.

RQIA Chief Executive Briege Donaghy added, “We are grateful for the determination and resilience of families and residents, whose courage to speak out has led to much-needed change.

“The purpose of the RQIA is to protect service users and patients; and keep the Ministry of Health informed of the quality and availability of health and social services. It is established by law that he is independent in the performance of his duties.

She continued: “The RQIA is committed to working with others, particularly service users and their families and those who represent them. We are determined that service users and their families are respected and that their experience informs and guides the actions of the RQIA.

“We are working with the Commissioner for the Elderly, the Department of Health and the Public Service Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, to ensure that the issues identified are addressed, across the system.”

The Department of Health has been contacted for comment.