Communities and Local Government CommitteeFurther written submission from British and Irish Ombudsman Association

Further to our original submission to the enquiry (dated March 2012), BIOA invites the Committee to consider the following additional comments which are made in the light of the evidence considered to date by the Committee.

The Ombudsman Association’s first stated aim is to safeguard the title of “Ombudsman”—and we regard independence as a critical feature of a true ombudsman scheme, whether in the public or private sector. The purpose of this letter is to emphasise a key point, being that a proper degree of operational independence is as important as independence in decision making. There are three main reasons, which are (as they apply to public sector ombudsman):

Independence of the Ombudsman institution from Government is an essential prerequisite for ensuring that the Ombudsman can effectively exercise discretion and hold executive authorities to account on behalf of citizens;

Perception of independence in all aspects of the Ombudsman’s functions is vital to public confidence in it;

Operational interference can amount to interference in the quasi-judicial role, for example if resource restrictions affect what cases are investigated and the extent to which they can be investigated.

We have noted the Secretary of State’s letter of 24 April to the Chair of the Committee, which was referred to in the hearing of 30 April. We are concerned that this gives the impression that the LGO may be subject to excessive pressure to reform with the main aim of achieving significant budget reductions. The potential for harm to actual independence and the perception of it is clear.

The Commission for Local Administration in England, as the governing body for the LGO Scheme, is the appropriate authority to recommend appropriate resource levels and oversee change. We understand that the Commission initiated an independent strategic business review and developed a transformation plan for the LGO Scheme in 2011 in preparation for the DCLG budget review later that year.

Local government in England is going through great change and facing huge resource pressures. Citizens need to be able to turn to the LGO for independent, objective and fair consideration of their complaints. In order to be able to respond properly, the LGO needs to be supported through a difficult change process and to have sufficient resource to do the job it is charged with. This does not mean it should be immune to the resource constraints facing the public sector as a whole, but it must not be so constrained as to render it incapable of delivering a service, nor must its independence be so compromised as to damage its ability to be thorough and objective.

The accountability of public sector ombudsman can be effectively supported in a way that is consistent with proper independence by arrangements to report to an appropriate committee—as is the case with the public sector ombudsmen in Wales and Scotland.

I hope that this letter, which highlights an important issue which sits at the heart of the relationship between all UK Ombudsman schemes and their sponsors, will be helpful to the Committee in their deliberations.

May 2012

Prepared 16th July 2012