Public service complaints system needs urgent reform

Which? wants the next Government to commit to reforming the public service complaints system, after finding at least 5.3 million people didn’t complain about their problem last year, and a number of those who did felt victimised or that nothing was done. 

Which? is today submitting a report to all political parties calling for the next Government to take action to improve public services complaints handling, after our research found that last year half (49%) of people who had a problem with a public service provider, like a hospital, school or care home, didn’t make an official complaint. This equates to at least 5.3 million people across the UK.

The reasons putting people off complaining were not feeling it would be worth the effort (35%) and thinking nothing would be done about the problem (35%). One in seven (14%) didn’t complain because they were worried about receiving worse treatment as a result.

However, even when people did complain, they weren’t always happy with how it was handled. Only three in ten (31%) were satisfied with the way their complaint was dealt with and half (48%) felt their complaint was ignored. A similar percentage (46%) said complaining just added to their stress and a quarter (26%) said it had put them off complaining again.

In light of the failings in the public service complaints system, and a number of NHS scandals, the Government has said it is looking at how to reform this broken system, but it is crucial that the next Government takes this forward to deliver reform across the system.

Across public services, people who experienced a problem with the NHS were the least likely to speak up about it, with only four in ten (40%) complaining formally, compared to 51% for public services as a whole. Satisfaction with the way complaints about the NHS were handled was also lower (23%).

Over 60,000 people have supported our campaign to ‘Make Complaints Count’ so far, with nearly 14,000 leaving stories about their experiences. People told us that when they complained they felt victimised, that nothing happened as a result, and that those providing the service were more interested in protecting their staff and the image of the organisation than resolving complaints.

Others told us they felt the complaints system was too complex, there was a lack of support to speak up, and there wasn’t enough time to complain. Many are also concerned whistleblowers are not supported enough.

Our survey found six in ten (62%) would be more likely to complain about a public service if there was greater support to help them through the process and seven in ten (71%) would be more likely to if they knew it would result in direct action.

Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd, said:

“When things go wrong in public services it’s vital people feel able to speak up to help prevent the same thing happening again. But thousands have told us they faced barriers to complaining. We want the next Government to commit to urgently reforming the complaints system across all public services so that people feel confident it is worth complaining and things will change.”

As part of our campaign, we are calling on the Government to make complaints count by:

  • Requiring all regulators of public services to use complaints to trigger inspections;
  • Giving people access to independent support to help them complain;
  • Introducing a single public services ombudsman to deal with complaints effectively;
  • Allowing representative groups to make super-complaints on behalf of those impacted; and
  • Ensuring whistleblowers are listened to and their concerns acted upon. 

In the first session in the next Parliament, the next Government should introduce legislation in the Queen’s Speech to address these issues, as well as establishing a single portal for public service complaints to direct people to the right place and a requirement across all public service providers to support and protect whistleblowers.

Notes to editors: 

  1. A sample of the 14,000 stories we heard from supporters: 

“My brother-in-law died due to incompetence in hospital. The complaints system was stacked against his widow, my sister, and she eventually abandoned her complaint because of the difficulties she faced.” – Richard, West Midlands

“I am afraid to complain about my care. Whenever I have done, my care has become much, much worse.” – Sophia, South East

“We’ve raised concerns about our parents’ experiences in hospital, and whilst staff have listened sympathetically, we have had no confidence that any real action resulted.” – Ila, South East

“I am fed up of my complaints being ignored or passed around, and everybody else is blamed instead. I am physically drained by the way I am treated and ignored, that I do not have the strength to complain anymore.” – Joanna, London

“My mother suffered the most appalling indignities and had her basic human rights stripped while living in a care home. Institutional abuse is rife and is not even noticed. Staff who recognise it soon become part of the problem as whistleblowers end up being either ostracised or sacked.” – Sharon, East Midlands

You can see the full report and stories here:

  1. The most common problems people experience with public services are quality (42%), waiting times (32%), and communication from professionals (29%). 
  1. Methodology: Populus, on the behalf of Which?, conducted an online survey of 4058 UK adults between 6th – 12th February. Data were weighted to be representative of all UK adults. 
  1. The figure of 5.3 million people not complaining formally is calculated by taking the number of people in the survey who did not make a formal complaint when they experienced a problem (i.e. did not complain to a representative of the service provider (e.g. member of staff) or feed back through another official channel (e.g. the ombudsman/regulator/MP)) – this is 10.5% of all respondents. This data is extrapolated to the total number of people in the UK, based on the latest ONS mid-year population estimates.

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