Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

5.  Memorandum by the English Public Sector Ombudsmen

  1.  This memorandum has been prepared jointly by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the English Local Government Ombudsmen, and the Health Service Commissioner for England ("the English Public Sector Ombudsmen") as a response to the Joint Committee's call for evidence issued on 5 April. We have not consulted our public sector ombudsmen colleagues in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland because the establishment of Human Rights Commissions in Scotland and Wales would be a matter for the devolved administrations in those countries and, as Question 4 in the call for evidence points out, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission must continue to exist.

  2.  We do not wish to express a view on the desirability of establishing a Human Rights Commission for the United Kingdom: that is a matter for Government and Parliament to decide. Nor do we have any experience on which to base a reply to most of the questions raised in the call for evidence. However, there are two aspects on which we do wish to submit evidence.


  3.  The central role of the public sector ombudsmen is to investigate complaints from members of the public that they have sustained injustice in consequence of maladministration. The concept of maladministration is not defined by statute; but as it has been developed by successive ombudsmen it includes actions which could be regarded as involving breaches of particular human rights, such as the right to peaceful enjoyment of property, to respect for family life, or to suitable education for children. Maladministration may also involve more general inconsistencies with the philosophy underlying the European Convention on Human Rights: for example, action by a public authority may be disproportionate to the objectives which it is trying to achieve; or it may be accompanied by an inadequate explanation, or inadequate information regarding rights of objection or appeal.

  4.  This link between human rights issues and the work of public sector ombudsmen has been widely recognised abroad. In some European countries, for example, such as Hungary and Poland, the title of the national ombudsman is "Commissioner for Human Rights"; and the Human Rights Commissioner appointed in 1999 by the Council of Europe regards the national ombudsmen in states which are members of the Council as among his most important interlocutors.

  5.  We therefore suggest that if a Human Rights Commission is established for the United Kingdom there would be advantage if one or more of the public sector ombudsmen were among its members.


  6.  Question 9 in the Joint Committee's call for evidence asks what powers a Human Rights Commission might have. We have a particular interest in the suggestion that it might be empowered to conduct investigations.

  7.  In our view, this would be undesirable. First, to the extent that the Commission was regarded as an advocate for a particular point of view it might not be accepted as an impartial and objective investigator. Secondly, the Commission would have to undertake an operational role and to be the employer of a sizeable number of investigative staff—tasks for which it seems unlikely to be well equipped. Finally, as explained earlier in this note, the public sector ombudsmen already conduct investigations in areas touching on human rights; and the creation of yet another body with a similar role would lead to confusion for complainants and others. One of the main messages to come out of the Cabinet Office Review of the English Public Sector Ombudsmen, published in April 2000 and the subject of a consultation document issued by the Government in June 2000, was the need to simplify and unify the machinery for resolving complaints against public sector organisations.

  8.  In connection with the Cabinet Office Review, we would observe that none of its recommendations would weaken the arguments in this note: on the contrary, the creation of a single ombudsman service to cover most public services in England (and non-devolved matters for the whole of the United Kingdom) would enhance the ability of the ombudsmen to contribute to the work of a Human Rights Commission if one were to be established.

20 June 2001

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