The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman is an organisation directly accountable to the Scottish Parliament. We provide services to the public and public organisations.
What do we do?
- We conduct independent investigations into complaints about most public services in Scotland – including the NHS, local government, prisons, water providers, universities, colleges, the Scottish Government and most non-departmental public bodies (NDPB).
- We set standards and support best practice for complaints handling by public services throughout Scotland.
- We conduct independent reviews of decisions made by councils about Scottish Welfare Funds.
- We offer the Independent National Whistleblowing Officer service which is the final stage of the process for those raising whistleblowing concerns about the NHS in Scotland.
This is the role we are most associated with. Most public organisations are under our jurisdiction – if someone has completed the organisation’s complaints process, and is still unhappy with the decision, they can ask for an independent investigation.
What we can do for a member of the public
We investigate and that can in itself be reassuring. Following an investigation, we may make recommendations. We always robustly follow up recommendations and we require organisations to provide evidence that they have implemented them by the deadline which we set. The most common recommendations we make after an investigation are apologies and recommending changes being implemented to stop the problem happening again. This may be asking organisations to change processes, to ensure they follow procedures or to put in place training and support for staff. An important stage of our process occurs at the beginning when we discuss, usually by phone, what people want to achieve. This helps us to understand how the problem has affected them, and, if they are seeking something we know we can’t achieve, it allows us to signpost them to a route that might get them the outcome they are after.
We can only make recommendations and our decisions are not binding. However, we find that organisations do comply. If one did not, we would approach the Parliament to explain this and ask for the help of MSPs to persuade the organisation to correct any outstanding injustice. The process by which we would do this is called issuing a special report. Investigation and recommendations are not the only outcomes we can provide. We seek to resolve issues early if we think both sides will agree to a solution. We also take a proportionate approach. If it is clear we will not be able to achieve anything more for the individual, we will not investigate but we may be able to reassure the member of the public that the service they have received was appropriate. We can always provide advice on what we may or may not be able to achieve for any individual.
There are some important legal limitations which may prevent us from investigating a complaint.
We operate within the rules set out for us by Parliament. There are restrictions on what we can do, some of the most common being:
• Time limit – we do not normally investigate complaints about issues that occurred more than 12 months ago. There are exceptions so we encourage people to contact us even if they are outside this limit.
• The decision was made properly within the discretion of the organisation. With the important exception of complaints about the NHS and some areas highlighted below, we are unable to assess the merits of the decision. This ‘discretionary decisions’ point is worth explaining further. Across Scotland, public bodies make thousands of discretionary decisions every day. For example, local authorities routinely make decisions about whether or not, based upon their policies and procedures, to change how they collect refuse or to approve a planning application. The SPSO Act says that we can’t question a decision simply because a complainant is unhappy with it. We can, however, look at the procedures that led up to a decision. We often find that organisations have correctly followed the procedure. In such cases, the complainant is likely to remain unhappy with the body’s decision, but if there is no evidence of anything having gone wrong in the way a decision is reached, we cannot question its merits. We can only work within the powers that we have. Our powers in relation to health complaints are different, where we can look at clinical decisions.
• Anything that has been dealt with or should be dealt with by a court or tribunal – this may affect complaints where there is a clear right of appeal or someone has already been to court. For example, if the issue is about a child’s additional support needs not being met there are clear routes for appeal.
• We cannot look at employment or personnel matters.
• We need a person to bring us a complaint about something that has affected them directly. A person can sometimes be a company or a group of people but we cannot investigate an issue if no one has brought us a complaint. We will always explain to someone what we are doing and that will include if we decide we are not able to or should not investigate their complaint. They can ask us to look at this again if they think we have made a mistake. We can also always give advice if you are unsure how best to signpost a constituent.
What we don't do
While we cover most public services in Scotland, there are some areas where complaints should go to other organisations. To give some of the most common examples: we don’t consider complaints about the police – these are dealt with by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner. A complaint about a breach of a code of conduct should go to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life. We are not able to consider complaints about a wholly reserved function. The organisation you wish to complain about should provide details of who to contact but if you are not sure it is likely we will be able to signpost you.
On individual complaints, we remain fully responsible for the decisions we make and cannot be directed on an individual case by an MSP, MP or the Government. This is an important guarantee of our independence.
A member of the public is unhappy with a service they have received – what should they do?
We always encourage people to contact the organisation they are unhappy with first as, often, things can be quickly fixed. People can sometimes be nervous about this but the public services that we work with are required to have an accessible and straightforward complaints process, including information on how to complain and a number of methods for doing so. Organisations are also required to take complaints seriously and respond positively.
How do I know if an organisation is following the right process when I’m helping someone with a complaint?
Most organisations in Scotland operate a two-stage complaints handling procedure. It is a simple process with a frontline resolution stage for straightforward complaints and an investigation stage for more complex complaints or issues where the member of the public is still unhappy after the first stage. The organisations should try to resolve the first stage within 5 working days and the investigation stage within 20 working days. After the investigation stage, the person making the complaint should expect to receive a letter of response which should include signposting to us or another appropriate independent organisation if they remain unhappy. See our making a complaint video and further information here.
My constituent would like to make an anonymous complaint
Organisations should have a process that allows them to log anonymous complaints and undertake what investigation they can. We, however, are unable to take anonymous complaints because we can’t investigate without a named person. Making a complaint anonymously does lessen the effectiveness and we would expect organisations to provide reassurances and guarantee that someone complaining does not receive a lesser or different service as a result.
My constituent would like my support to make a complaint to SPSO
There are two options depending on what the constituent would prefer. If they would like you to represent them and to deal with us direct, our complaints form provides a section where they can give consent for this to happen. If they would prefer to deal with us but want to know that you are being kept informed because that reassures them or it allows them to discuss this with you easily, we can copy you into all correspondence. We would need consent for this too and can arrange to copy you in by email or by post.
When should someone bring a complaint to you?
We would normally only get involved when the organisation’s complaints process has been completed. The person making the complaint should receive a letter signposting to us at this point. If you are unsure where someone is in the process, you can either call the organisation the person is complaining to or contact us for advice.
My constituent is unsure what information to send you
We have a form (also in paper format) that helps people explain the issues to us. We also need to see the final letter they have received from the organisation. This will be the letter that signposts to us. This allows us to confirm that they have completed the complaints process. That is all we need to start the process and when we need more information we will ask.
My constituent is unhappy with a decision you have made – what should they do?
The letter they received with the decision should explain how they can ask for a review of our decision. If this isn’t clear, there is information here or you can call us and we can explain the next steps.
My constituent has a complicated complaint and I am unsure who they should complain to
Call our freephone number 0800 377 7330. We can usually give advice on what the best options are. On the rare occasions we can’t, we will usually know of another organisation who can do this.
My constituent is unhappy with the service they have received from SPSO
We have published service standards and our own complaints process for people who are unhappy with our service. We have the same two stages as other organisations. If someone is still unhappy, we have an external independent customer complaints reviewer who can be approached. We publish information quarterly about the complaints we have received and an annual report setting out what we have learned from complaints.
Finding out more about our complaints investigations
We publish most of the decisions and recommendations we make on our website each month, along with statistics and information about our own casework performance. There is a searchable database of our decisions here. Each month we also publish an e-newsletter containing key findings, please sign up here.
The Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 gave the SPSO new responsibilities and powers in relation to complaints handling. Specifically, it gave the SPSO a role to oversee the development of standardised Model Complaints Handling Procedures (MCHPs) for each sector, and to promote and monitor best practice in complaints handling. To take forward the development of MCHPs for each public service sector, a unit called the Complaints Standards Authority (CSA) was established as a core function within the SPSO.
In 2011, the Parliament approved the SPSO’s statement of principles which all complaints processes must comply with. It states that an effective CHP is: user-focussed; accessible; simple and timely; thorough, proportionate and consistent; objective, impartial and fair; and, should seek early resolution and deliver improvement.
Over the years, the CSA has worked in partnership with key stakeholders and representative bodies within each sector to develop and implement standardised MCHPs, with the same two-stage procedure. There are MCHPs for the following sectors:
- Local Authorities
- Registered Social Landlords
- Further education
- Higher education
- Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament, associated public authorities
Updated MCHPs for all sectors except the NHS have been in place since 1 April 2021. The current NHS process has been in place since 1 April 2017. Most sectors have a complaints handlers network to share and promote good practice in complaints handling and the SPSO participates in the networks.
Providing training and tools
We support this work by providing training and resources. We deliver training on complaint handling and investigation skills, provide support on dealing with difficult behaviour, and provide tools to improve practice. Our website offers organisations guidance and resource materials on complaints handling, communications with customers, making improvements, and complaints governance. Organisations can contact our Complaints Standards staff for assistance.
Tel: 0131 297 4814
The Scottish Welfare Funds are a national scheme delivered by local authorities in line with guidance issued by the Scottish Government. It is backed by legislation and regulations. It supports the most vulnerable in society by providing grants to people when they are in crisis and helping them to remain in the community. We provide the independent review stage. We can direct local authority decisions and make changes to grants received. The timescales for this work are significantly tighter than for complaints investigations and we have a dedicated team to manage this role. This work began on 1 April 2016 and we are open, accessible and share any learning that we have in our monthly newsletters. Our SWF team can be contacted:
- by phone on 0800 014 7299 (calls are free to this number, even from mobiles)
- through our website: www.spso.org.uk/scottishwelfarefund
- post: SPSO, Bridgeside House, 99 McDonald Road, Edinburgh, EH7 4NS
On 1 April 2021, the SPSO took on a new role as Independent National Whistleblowing Officer (INWO). The legislation setting out this new jurisdiction sought to replicate the powers we have for complaints, in relation to whistleblowing in the NHS. This applies to current and former staff, and to students, trainees and volunteers.
Like with complaints, we have established a model procedure – the National Whistleblowing Standards (the Standards) – which every NHS provider must apply. This sets out a two stage procedure, aimed at encouraging staff to raise concerns early, and for these to be listened to and carefully considered. Protection for whistleblowers and other staff involved in the process is also a fundamental part of the Standards.
The INWO is able to review concerns that have been through the Standards, to provide an independent decision on them. Much of the INWO work and focus is aimed at improving trust in the local process, and this is the perspective we apply to our own investigations. We are working closely with NHS partners to ensure greater trust and increasing learning from concerns about harm or wrongdoing raised by workers.
The INWO team can be contacted on:
We are an office-holder of the Scottish Parliament. An Ombudsman reports to Parliament to help members of that Parliament hold public organisations to account and to reassure themselves that citizens are being treated appropriately. All our reports are issued to the Parliament and have the status of parliamentary documents. We lay regularly before the Parliament:
- summary reports of decisions
- full investigation reports of the most significant investigations
- annual reports which set out our performance
- our strategic plan which we are required to lay every four years.
We also have the power to lay additional reports when we consider that to be appropriate. As an office-holder, we are answerable to the Parliament for our overall performance and service including our use of public resources. Our budget is set by the SPCB and they can direct where we are located. The Ombudsman is appointed following a vote of the Parliament. We appear annually before the Parliament to answer questions about our own performance. We have been questioned in the past on areas such as our quality assurance process, our systems of governance and on how we manage our resources. We also submit evidence to committees on request and in response to calls for evidence which draws on our experience of complaints.
Since we were set up in 2002, this office has undergone significant change. The Parliament has taken the lead on making complaints an important part of public service and helped Scotland to become an acknowledged centre of good practice. In 2002, we became the first unified public services Ombudsman in the UK. Since then we have been given new areas of jurisdiction and roles whenever the Parliament saw the need for our service to be modernised and adapted to reflect the needs of the public.
The integration of health and social care is one example of an area where there has been changes. This has been driven by Parliamentary committees who have highlighted this area of work. We worked with the government and others to align the health complaints model with the standard model used by local authorities. Changes to social work complaints handling were brought about through the Public Services Reform (Social Work Complaints Procedure) (Scotland) Order 2016 (link is external). These changes included provision for the Ombudsman to consider the merits of social work decisions as part of the SPSO’s independent investigation of complaints.
The SPSO published the Social Work MCHP in 2016 for adoption by all organisations under the SPSO's jurisdiction that deliver social work services by April 2017. We now look at social work decisions the same way we do clinical judgement. We are also able to share information more easily with key organisations – the Care Inspectorate and the Scottish Social Services Council.
We keep MSPs and MPs up to date with significant changes directly, and we also publish general e-newsletters on a monthly basis.
If you work for an MSP or MP or in the Scottish Parliament and would like to sign up to receive our regular news, please register here:
- by phone on freephone 0800 377 7330
- online at www.spso.org.uk/contact-us
- post: SPSO, Bridgeside House, 99 McDonald Road, Edinburgh, EH7 4NS
Please contact us if you would like this leaflet in other languages and formats (such as large print, audio or Braille)