Time for a People's Ombudsman Service - Public Administration Committee Contents

7  The future: An ombudsman for England?

89. In an articlewritten for The Guardian on 27 November 2013, Adam Sampson, Legal Ombudsman, referring to the large number of ombudsmen and complaints systems in the UK, said that "our complaints system is a mess" and the cost of maintaining multiple systems is "startlingly high". He went on to suggest that government should grasp the opportunity for change:

    to bring some order and efficiency into what is an unwieldy, expensive and confusing world. If that means combining some schemes and eliminating others-so be it.[95]

An English Ombudsman service?

90. We considered the extent to which an alternative model for public services ombudsmen could alleviate some of the problems individuals face when complaining about public services. Patrick Dunleavy,Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics, in his 2010 work Joining Up Citizen Redress in UK Central Government, suggested that the organisation of ombudsmen is problematic, especially insofar as there is no integrated system of ombudsman services in England. Professor Dunleavy told us that:

    The time is long overdue when we should aim to create within England the same kind of integrated public services ombudsman that we see in Scotland and Wales, which looks across health, local government and central government services, and does this in an integrated way.[96]

91. There are examples of ombudsmen services being integrated in order to deliver a single service for a particular sector. The Financial Ombudsman, for example, told us that the service brought together a number of ombudsman schemes to create a "one stop shop' for financial services disputes".[97] Peter Tyndall, the Ombudsman and Information Commissioner for Ireland and previously the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, said that:

    with a joined up public service ombudsman approach as practised in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is very much easier for the service user to complain and for the kind of complaints which cross agency borders, such as health and social care, to be effectively dealt with.[98]

92. Witnesses were generally supportive of such an approach for England. Dame Julie Mellor, the current PHSO, said that having a single public services ombudsman wouldbe better for individuals with complaints relating to health and social care, who currently could approach either PHSO or the Local Government Ombudsman with their complaint, depending on the service provided.[99]We did hear some notes of caution, however. The Housing Ombudsman said:

    A single PSOE [Public Services Ombudsman for England] appears, superficially, to be a good thing but, from my point of view, it is another myth that has emerged from the mists of prejudice and assumption. To my knowledge it has never been subjected to what the judges call 'nice chemical analysis'.Before I could support this idea I should need to be convinced by:

    Clearly set out aims, objectives, and outcomes;

    A clearly set out, argued rationale as to why it would be an improvement on where we are now;

    A cost-benefit analysis;

    An options appraisal;

    An audit of necessary changes to primary legislation;

    An informed and authoritative assessment of the likelihood of legislative changes and a clear indication of timescales;

    A comprehensive risk assessment.[100]

93. In evidence to the Committee, the Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP, Minister for Government Policy, said that:

    My personal view is that there is a great deal of merit in trying to thin down what is described in one of the reports that has been done as 'a complaints maze'. Part of that is to take very seriously the recommendation of the Parliamentary Ombudsman herself—that there should be some amalgamation of ombudsmen. We will have to think through that all very carefully and consult an awful lot of people.[101]


94. Witnesses suggested to us that bringing together ombudsmen that currently deal with complaints about public services in England, such as the Local Government Ombudsman, the Housing Ombudsman, and the relevant parts of PHSO, could be beneficial in making it simpler for people to complain. The organisation Which? illustrated in their evidence the complexity of current arrangements:

    if a user has a complaint about their care home or home care agency, there are currently up to five different bodies that they could be expected to report their complaint to—their provider, the local authority, the Local Government Ombudsman, the CQC or Local Healthwatch.[102]

It was also suggested that a single public services ombudsman for England could help to reduce some of the confusion individuals experienced with services increasingly being delivered via the public and private sectors. The Local Government Ombudsman said:

    The public should not have to make complex determinations about who isaccountable fordelivering their service, and therefore liable for redress,and which Ombudsman can help them when those servicesfail. [...] Asingle Public Services OmbudsmanServicefor Englandcould provide people in England witha unified, consistent and comprehensive service which avoids the current systemic confusion.[103]

95. Some suggested that a single public services ombudsman for England could also assume responsibility for some areas of public service where there are gaps in the provision of dispute resolution. Dame Julie Mellor told us that:

    At the moment, we have our two schemes, health and UK services, we have the Local Government Ombudsman, we have the Housing Ombudsman, but education at the moment is a bit missing. Therefore, defining this as something that is about all public services rather than listing which services are in or out, for the public it is everything that is publicly funded [...].[104]


96. Some witnesses warned of the risks associated with establishing a single public services ombudsman for England. Professor Brian Thompson, who was involved in research in Northern Ireland that led to proposals for reform of the Northern Ireland Ombudsman, raised the issue of the scale of England, saying that:

    it would be a very large office if you were to replicate the devolved services in Scotland and Wales within England. I am not sure whether that would be an appropriate size.[105]

97. The Local Government Ombudsman suggested that with different types of services being covered, "employing lead ombudsmen for different sectors" could help to ensure that the ombudsman could demonstrate expertise in different thematic areas.[106] Professor Dunleavy suggested that a single public services ombudsman could incorporate a regional focus:

    Ideally, the Parliamentary Ombudsman Service would have a regional setup like the Local Government Ombudsman has, with a level somewhere between three and nine Government regions. Then there will be a National Ombudsman to do national things and to be a lead to pull together the whole redress picture, to consult with appeals and regulatory bodies. Regional commissioners or regional parliamentary ombudsmen should have a detailed knowledge of their local area and all the authorities, MPs and others in their area. I think that is impossible to do at the national level.[107]

98. We believe that the creation of a single public services ombudsman for England would be beneficial. For complainants it would create a much simpler and more accessible ombudsman service, and for public services would allow learning and good practice to be disseminated more easily. The size of England does present a challenge for an Ombudsman, but we believe the creation of branch offices could go some way to addressing the issue and should be explored.

99. We recommend that the Government bring forward, and consult on, proposals to create a single public services ombudsman for England, bringing together, for example, the relevant parts of Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, Local Government Ombudsman, and Housing Ombudsman. The jurisdiction of any single public services ombudsman for England should include areas of public services that could benefit from an ombudsman service, including for example, some educational institutions. Branch offices for the public services ombudsman for Englandshould also be explored, to facilitate access for all parts of England and so the office can gather perspective on the performance of public services and administration from across the country.

The implications of devolution: A UK Ombudsman?

100. Professor Robert Hazell, Professor of Government and the Constitution, University College London, supported the idea of a single public services ombudsman for England but noted that:

    we must all be aware that there is a devolution wrinkle to this, because the Parliamentary Ombudsman is also responsible for complaints in non-devolved matters in Scotland and Wales.[108]

101. He considers that transforming the office of PHSO into a single public services ombudsman for England would not be sufficient. Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has led to adjustments and developments of the ombudsman schemes. PHSO continues to handle complaints about matters that were not devolved to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as complaints about maladministration in government departments, agencies and other public bodies in the UK in relation to England, "so it has a mix of jurisdictions; some UK wide, some GB wide, some simply English and some NIonly".[109]Jim Martin, Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, told us:

    [...] the one cautionary thing I would say to you is, do not confuse the role of the UK Parliamentary Ombudsman with an English Public Services Ombudsman. It is very important to remember that the UK Parliamentary Ombudsman is a UK function, not an English function, and it has to be looked at and dealt with—however it is dealt with—in that way [...]were there to be a decision to go down the road of creating an English Public Services Ombudsman, it would be very important to remember that currently within the PHSO, there are two bodies. There is a Parliamentary Ombudsman, which is a UK body, and the Health Service Ombudsman, which is an English body. You have to make sure that you do not put the UK as part of an English Public Services Ombudsman. It has got to be thought through.[110]

102. Dame Julie Mellor summarised the problem that would need to be addressed:

    Whatever is done would need to be coherent for the service providers.For example, it would not make sense to have all the different nationalUKombudsmen services considering complaints aboutUKservices within each nation, because you would then potentially have inconsistent decisions by different ombudsman services.[111]

103. A number of options to address the problem were suggested, such as the retention of a public service ombudsman for the UK as well as the creationof a separate ombudsman service just for England, or to ask one ombudsman to take on the UK function and report to all Parliaments and Assemblies. Peter Tyndall summarised the options he thought could be considered:

    it might be worth contemplating that there are probably three ways of doing it, broadly speaking in models. One of them would be to have [...] an English Public Services Ombudsman mirroring the devolved functions ombudsmen in the three devolved countries, with a UK Parliamentary Ombudsman dealing with non-devolved matters. That is one model. The other one is to combine the two, and I think that does cause constitutional difficulties, personally. I think that is problematic, to have a body that is England at one level and UK at another. [...]

    One of the other solutions, the most radical solution, which is probably worth thinking about, is the question of simply 'Why not ask the Ombudsman [...] to deal with all of the complaints that arise about public services there, and report to the two Parliaments? [...] That way, the public gets a completely joined-up service in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.[112]

104. The present division of power between the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland presents a difficulty for those seeking to provide England with a national ombudsman service. Non-devolved matters require a UK-wide Ombudsman Service. As long as the UK Parliament and the UK Government are responsible for the law and administration of England as well as for UK non-devolved matters, there will be a need for a distinctive ombudsman service for these functions.

105. We recommend that the Government bring forward, and consult on, proposals to deliver an effective ombudsman service for UK non-devolved matters—in addition to that of a single public services ombudsman for England—in order to optimise an ombudsman service for the UK citizen in respect of those functions. This could be provided, for example, either as a single ombudsman with a dual role as UK and England Ombudsman, or the UK and England ombudsman services could each have separate legal personality.

95   "Time to streamline Britain's Complaints system", The Guardian, 26 November 2013 Back

96   Q11 Back

97   The Financial Ombudsman Service (PHS32) Back

98   Public Services Ombudsman for Wales (PHS12) Back

99   Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHS14) Back

100   Housing Ombudsman (PHS34) Back

101   Oral evidence taken on 16 October 2013, HC (2013-14) 229, Q404 [Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP) Back

102   Which? (COM 12) Back

103   Local Government Ombudsman (PHS51) Back

104   Q227 Back

105   Q13 Back

106   Local Government Ombudsman (PHS 51) Back

107   Q11 Back

108   Q12 Back

109   The Ombudsman - the developing role in the UK, Standard Note SN/PC/04832, House of Commons Library, November 2012 Back

110   Qq108-109 Back

111   Q227 Back

112   Q111 Back

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Prepared 28 April 2014