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01 April 2016
Public services watchdog issues warning on caseload demands

Public services watchdog issues warning on caseload demands

Scotland’s public services watchdog has warned it may be forced to raise the bar for consideration of complaints unless additional resources are made available.

The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) also suggested timescales to investigate complaints could be extended amid increasingly complex cases coming its way.

The Ombudsman is the final stage for complaints about organisations providing public services, such as councils, the NHS, housing associations, Scottish Government, colleges and universities as well as prisons, after internal processes have been exhausted.


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Caseload demands remain the watchdog’s “single greatest challenge”, Ombudsman Jim Martin said as the body laid its strategic plan for the next four years before the Scottish Parliament last month.

The number of complaints received by the Ombudsman reached almost 4,900 in 2014-15 after rising for the sixth year running. Despite the increase, the SPSO was faced with a programme of 15 per cent cuts since 2012, with the watchdog warning that efficiency savings have been exhausted.

“While the rise in demand for our service is in many ways to be welcomed (it demonstrates the public’s response to increased clarity about how to report problems with a view to improving public services), we must be adequately resourced,” said Martin.

“I believe we have maximised any major business efficiencies we can with our existing resource base through the many initiatives we have implemented. Therefore, if demand and complexity continue to grow and additional investigations resources are not forthcoming, we will need to consider measures to manage the volume and complexity of cases.

“These may include taking longer to consider cases and introducing further criteria under a ‘proportionality’ or ‘significance’ test, to reduce the number of cases we consider.”

The Ombudsman’s budget for the 2016-17 has been set at just over £3.25m, up £11,000 on the equivalent figure for the current financial year, albeit down once contingency funding accessed during the last year is taken into account.

Funding for the SPSO is set in discussion with the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body and signed off by MSPs as part of the budget bill process.

The SPSO is currently meeting a target to handle 95 per cent of advice stage complaints within 10 working days, while 97 per cent of investigations complaints are decided within 260 working days, according to it latest annual report.

A third target - early resolution complaints decided or moved on to the more complex investigation stage within 50 working days - went unmet last year, though it improved significantly.

The watchdog has rejected any suggestion that members of the public should pay to lodge their complaint, though it has pledged to “keep under review” the possibility of developing a ‘polluter pay’ model whereby organisations generating the most complaints would make a contribution to the cost of SPSO resolving them

The Ombudsman’s remit will be expanded further next month as it takes on responsibility for reviewing welfare fund decisions made by local authorities, while complaints about the controversial named person scheme will follow later this year.

These areas of work, along with health and social integration complaints, which will be directed to the SPSO from next April, will be “resourced seperately from existing funding arrangements”, Martin confirmed.

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