THE Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) has defended its offer to support health and social care (HSC) trusts in their handling of complaints during the Covid-19 pandemic.
NIPSO’s website states it is ‘independent’ and ‘impartial’ in its statutory role of holding public bodies, including HSC trusts, to account.
However, correspondence sent by former Acting Ombudsman Paul McFadden – on March 24, 2020 – to the chief executives of every HSC trust in Northern Ireland, seen by The Detail, says NIPSO would “be available” to support them, “which may help manage complainants’ expectations and minimise workloads at a later stage”.
The Detail asked NIPSO if it accepted that there is a conflict of interests between its performance of its statutory function, as a watchdog, and helping HSC trusts in such a way.
NIPSO responded by saying it regularly provides advice to public bodies on complaints handling “in order to improve public services” and that there is “no conflict of interest in providing trusts with this advice”.
The watchdog told The Detail that the correspondence “aimed to recognise the unprecedented pressures that HSC staff were facing at the time”.
A spokesperson for the organisation then added that the letter was sent “to stress the importance of good complaints handling and maintaining access to redress”.
However, nowhere in the correspondence is this point made.
NIPSO continued: “The phrase ‘help manage complainants’ expectations’ served to remind trusts that they should tell complainants if their complaints were going to be delayed because of the pandemic, and to keep them updated on the progress of their complaints.
“The letter also drew attention to the fact that trusts should carry on monitoring complaints to make sure numbers were manageable when the crisis abated.”
NIPSO’s March correspondence also states: “We will be advising people who may have a complaint or who may be considering making a complaint, related to Covid-19 or otherwise, to recognise the current pressures and to reflect carefully on whether it is necessary to do so at this time.”
The Detail, therefore, asked NIPSO if it was attempting to help HSC trusts fight off any sort of complaints relating to Covid-19 and questioned how, if it is, that this could be in the public interest.
It was also put to NIPSO that, during the Covid-19 pandemic, it could be argued that there’s an even greater onus on the watchdog to hold HSC trusts to account when their treatment of patients falls below the required standards.
NIPSO replied, there is “as much onus on holding all public bodies to account” during a pandemic as there is at all other times and the spokesperson maintained its correspondence “was aimed not at putting people off making complaints but at recognising the emerging crisis and unprecedented pressures being put on frontline services, particularly in the HSC sector”.
The spokesperson said: “NIPSO will always uphold the right of those receiving public services to complain and seek redress not simply because it is their right as citizens but because it is also an opportunity for insight and learning, and to address service failures.
“In mid-March, when the crisis was approaching its height, there was significant public debate on the sustainability of health services in Northern Ireland.
“It was clear at this stage that services were under pressure and there was uncertainty as to how the crisis would unfold.
“While some ombudsman services in other jurisdictions took the decision to stop receiving complaints, we decided to continue to accept new complaints and progress existing complaints.”
However, the March correspondence says NIPSO was “considering” how to handle its pre-existing casework and how it would deal “with newly received complaints about public bodies”.
It adds: “I would like to reassure you (HSC trust chief executives) we will respond flexibly should responses to our enquiries create difficulties or unreasonable pressures on your teams.”
NIPSO told us that, rather than limiting the complaints process, this approach was due to it recognising the HSC trusts’ “main focus” was on “minimising the health risks posed by the virus” and essential service provision, and that this is why it chose to look at complaints on a “case-by-case basis”.
The spokesperson maintained: “Complaints considered to be of high risk, that were time critical or that related to patient safety, were being progressed in line with our normal case handling approach.”
The March correspondence does not make reference to this.
NIPSO also said: “However, it was important we made complainants aware of the possibility that certain cases might not be handled within the normal timeframes.
“We believe this was a proportionate and sensible approach, which at all times was in the public interest.”
It is not clear from NIPSO’s response to The Detail if it is still advising people to reflect carefully on whether it is necessary to make complaints about HSC trusts at this time.
However, the watchdog said that it has been in “regular contact” with the trusts “to understand the impact the situation was having on complaints within the sector”.
NIPSO added: “We continue to adopt a flexible approach when responding to requests from the trusts to extend timelines.
“We continue to undertake investigations in line with the principles of good administration and consider that while the timescales for investigation may be slightly delayed, there is no anticipated impact to the quality of the service delivered to citizens who feel they have been failed by public bodies.”