A MAN whose job is to defend people’s rights against bodies who don’t is marking six years in the role.
Born in St Asaph and raised in Llangefni and Benllech, Nick Bennett is not a name everyone will recognise but his office is often the public’s last port of call when fighting officialdom in Wales.
The Public Service Ombudsman for Wales celebrated six years in his post on July 31. He is now in the final 12 months of a seven-year appointment.
Speaking passionately about being ‘fair, impartial and independent’, Mr Bennett, 51, made a frank admission that sometimes councils, housing associations and health boards move at a ‘snail’s pace’ when being investigated.
The father-of-three, who is married to Nia, said: “It’s a frustration shared by a lot of my colleagues in the office.
“We could be more timely but inevitably, when you begin an investigation, one wonders if some of that inertia is deliberate from some public bodies.
“It’s important for me to remind people who work in public service, particularly with what we’ve been through with Covid and other issues, we’re not there to catch anybody out.
“Where there’s a complaint and a public body’s done no wrong then there’s no case to answer.”
Although the Ombudsman’s office received more complaints than ever before this year, the number of times investigators found service failure or maladministration reduced from one in four cases in 2018-19 to one in five.
“After six years I can look the people of Wales in the eye and say the level of complaints coming from you might be higher than ever but actually the level of maladministration is down,” he said.
“I want to see that level carry on coming down but don’t be afraid to come to us if you feel things aren’t right.”
Nick Bennett at last year’s Wales Awards with wife Nia and Carol Vorderman
During his six years, Mr Bennett and his team have dealt with 26,000 enquiries, 14,000 complaints, issued 49 public interest reports and four thematic reports, including one on poor complaint handling by public bodies.
Such was his frustration at the differing, and often ineffective, ways complaints are handled in the public sector he pushed for a new law.
The new powers mean the Ombudsman can dictate a complaints standard across Welsh public bodies and can even start his own wider investigation into systemic problems if he feels it’s warranted.
Mr Bennett said: “Under the previous legislation we were totally reactive.
“We could only investigate if a member of the public put in a complaint.
“Let’s say somebody put a complaint in about a GP. We start investigating and we find other GP practices are affected throughout the rest of the health board.
“In the old days we would have to go back to the complainant and say ‘please, don’t complain about that GP, would you mind putting another complaint in about the health board so we can look at those wider issues’.
“We don’t have to do that any more. For me the biggest issue here is about social justice.”
Another aspect of the legislation is forcing those who look after services to adopt high complaints standards, so service users know what to expect when they have an issue.
He said: “We need to see a uniform set of data. Why is it currently complaints to health boards have not been published?
“Their compliance with the putting things right procedure is variable.
“Their figures in the past have been published as the results of Senedd Member questions.
Nick Bennett, public service Ombudsman for Wales, at the Newport Marathon last year
“I think it’s important that we have open and transparent data about the level of complaints and the level of maladministration, more generally across local authorities and health boards in Wales.
“That drives up performance, so that’s going to be another important aspect of this new legislation.
“We’ve set up a team and they’re already working on this.
“They’ve got complaints data from all the 22 local authorities in Wales.”
Once they’ve set the standard for complaints with councils, Mr Bennett said they’ll be looking at health boards, helping them adopt better standards and more transparency regarding where they go wrong.
He added: “We don’t want to see competition in public services but there’s still got to be some kind of currency there that empowers the individual service user and I think that data will help do that.”
If public bodies fail to act on a ruling of maladministration or service failure he can write a Special Report which goes before the Senedd.
On the two occasions he has done that he said “you get compliance very quickly afterwards”.
More than a third of the office’s complaints are regarding health boards and a lot of the time it’s regarding how they deal with complaints.
Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board (BCUHB) accounted for three in every 10 health board complaints in the most recent figures.
Mr Bennett said: “A frustration for me has been the fact figures in North Wales have continued to grow.
“It makes up 22 per cent of the population but 30 per cent of the health complaints I get are about BCUHB.
“I cannot tell you precisely the reason why they continue to increase.
“Clearly there have been issues in North Wales – BCUHB’s been in Special Measures, there’s been the Tawel Fan inquiry and other issues as well.
“Sometimes people are more likely to complain because of those broader reputational issues.
“The good news for the people of North Wales is whilst the number of complaints has gone up 17 per cent, the level of service failure and maladministration has gone down.
“I’m talking of valid complaints and we’ve been finding a lower level of service failure over the last 12 months.
“The previous year (2018-19) in four out of 10 investigations we found in favour of the service user – last year it was three in 10. I think that’s good news.
“We want to see good quality health services with people feeling secure and knowing where to turn if they do feel that something is not quite right.”
One element of his role he has been pleased to help dispel is the feeling North Wales gets left behind the South.
Having worked and lived for most of his life in the north Mr Bennett is proud of the association.
He was chief executive for Community Housing Cymru for eight years so has seen the other side of the complaints coin.
He also stood as candidate for the Lib Dems in the Assembly, as was, in 2003.
Mr Bennett says he hasn’t forgotten where he comes from.
He added: “The theme this is year is about delivering justice.
“I hope we can demonstrate we’ve been doing that across Wales.
“North Wales is top of the agenda and is getting its fair slice of the cake.
“We did four public interest reports last year, two of them involved issues in North Wales.
“I might not be located in North Wales full-time but heart, mind and soul has never left there – and we want to make sure the public services in North Wales would be what anyone in Wales would expect.”