Ombudsman welcomes Venice Commission’s Opinion on Health and Care Bill

The Venice Commission has found that proposals in the Health and Care Bill could undermine public trust in the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), and must be revised.

The Ombudsman wrote to the Venice Commission to ask it to look at proposals in the Health and Care Bill that will prohibit PHSO from accessing protected information held by the Health Service Safety Investigations Body (HSSIB) in its ‘safe space’. The Commission is the law body of the Council of Europe, of which the UK remains a member, and an advisory body on constitutional matters.    

The Commission has looked at the proposals in relation to the Venice Principles for the Protection and Promotion of the Ombudsman Institution. These are a set of best practice standards for ombuds practice, which were recently adopted by the UN General Assembly following a resolution co-sponsored and supported by the UK Government. PHSO is committed to embedding the Principles in its work through its 2022-25 corporate strategy.  

This aspect of the Bill, which is currently passing through Parliament, could have a significant impact on patients and families who complain to PHSO and for citizens who use the NHS.

PHSO supports the Opinion of the Commission which was adopted and published on 18 October 2021, and found that:

  • the UK Government’s proposed approach is inconsistent with the Venice Principles and the position taken in relation to coroners
  • safeguards to ensure that the aims of safe space are preserved are already available in the current legislative scheme of the Ombudsman
  • the exclusion of PHSO from the safe space has the potential to undermine public trust in a key national institution articulating citizens rights.

Ombudsman Rob Behrens, said:

I strongly endorse the unanimous Opinion of the Venice Commission that proposals to exclude the national Ombudsman (PHSO) from HSSIB’s ‘safe’ space is a violation of both the Venice Principles and the United Nations General Assembly Resolution of December 2020, which was co-sponsored by the UK Government.

It is important that the Ombudsman retains the right to access relevant evidence and information to ensure that investigations are independent and able to deliver a just outcome. The Government should now reflect carefully on this Opinion, which calls for PHSO to have unrestricted access to the safe space, and revise its legislative proposals.

Rob Behrens has written to the Chairs of the Health and Care Bill. View the letter (PDF 123KB)