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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 March 2007, 16:10 GMT
UK 'needs a complaints hotline'
Woman on telephone
Making complaints by telephone is difficult, MPs were told
A single telephone number should be introduced for all complaints about public services, MPs have been told.

People who did not have the internet at home got a worse service because making phone complaints was too difficult, expert Patrick Dunleavy told MPs.

The government spends 830m a year on handling complaints but people did not get a "Rolls Royce service," he said.

The public administration committee is investigating how public services can improve customer satisfaction.

Mr Dunleavy, professor of political science and public policy at the London School of Economics, said the answer was a central access point, like NHS Direct.

He said 59% of people had home internet access but those who did not - including pensioners, people on low incomes and the unemployed - found it "extremely difficult" to make an effective complaint over the telephone.

If you are not on the web, on the internet, and you don't have a piece of paper in front of you with a named official you still have a major problem kicking off a complaint
Prof Patrick Dunleavy

"They ring up numbers they get from the telephone book, or the citizen's advice bureau or library and then they get referred from pillar to post," he told the committee.

He said his research had shown "you had to be a pretty confident and persistent person to get from a general inquiry point to being able to make a complaint".

"If you are not on the web, on the internet, and you don't have a piece of paper in front of you with a named official you still have a major problem kicking off a complaint," he added.

He said the Ombudsman, who deals with complaints about financial and health matters in England and Wales, needed to become more accessible.

His call was backed by Philip Cullum, of the National Consumer Council, who said the Scottish system, with a one-stop public services Ombudsman was better.

He also suggested some organisations did not tell people about their rights as consumers in case they tried to claim compensation for poor service.

The committee also heard from Bernard Herdan, executive director of service delivery at the Identity and Passport Agency, who last year published a report on improving customer satisfaction across government.

Citizen's Charter

The government has pledged to introduce a new national standard for customer service this year, following his recommendations.

But he told MPs he believed the Charter Mark system, an updated version of the Citizen's Charter introduced in the 1990s by John Major's government, should be relaunched "urgently".

He said the principles behind the Citizen's Charter were sound, but it was too "centralist" and had some "difficult associations" in the public mind such as the "cones hotline" - the phone line set up for people to complain about road works.

Committee chairman, Labour MP Tony Wright, also praised the Citizen's Charter, saying it "actually started giving people some rights, entitlements in relation to public services that surely is a good thing".

I am not sure Tesco is going to help us around the issues of fraud. They might well have a lot of experience of queuing theory
Bernard Herdan

"We have gone in the other direction, which is entirely managerial, technocratic, top-down. The Citizen's Charter was bottom-up. It was saying 'you have certain legitimate expectations about public services'.

Tesco call

Mr Herdan also defended the passport service over revelations 10,000 passports had been mistakenly issued to fraudsters.

He said this was a tiny fraction of the total number issued each year but it strengthened the case for a stricter system, including face-to-face interviews.

"It justifies a bit of a shift towards inconveniencing people a bit more and making the process of applying for a passport slightly more complex and difficult in return for improved security," he told the MPs.

He also said customer service lessons could be learned from the private sector, but he rejected a call by Tory MP Ian Liddell-Grainger to seek help from supermarket giant Tesco on running the passport service.

"I am not sure Tesco is going to help us around the issues of fraud. They might well have a lot of experience of queuing theory and how to minimise queues so that might be a very good idea," said Mr Herdan.

Mr Herdan also warned customer service could suffer as a result of cuts to civil service jobs being made under the Gershon review.

"We must be careful always not to trim things too far. Particularly in the front line, customer-facing functions," said Mr H.




SEE ALSO
Safety dominates NHS complaints
01 Feb 07 |  Health
1,000 passports 'missing in post'
23 Feb 07 |  UK Politics
Big increase in NHS complaints
15 Nov 06 |  Health

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