This is a Joint Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.
Date Published: 28 March 2023
When a person suffers a breach of their human rights it is crucial that they can enforce those rights and that they have access to a remedy. However, there is a tendency for any discussion about human rights and enforcing them to focus on the role of the courts. This inquiry has sought to consider how people may raise complaints, including those that engage human rights, outside of court, specifically looking at the role of ombuds. An ombud is an official appointed to investigate complaints against public bodies or companies.
We asked the question: Should there be a new Human Rights Ombudsperson? In answering it, we surveyed the current ombuds landscape focusing on those ombuds whose role most closely resembled that which a human rights ombudsperson might hold: the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (the PHSO) and the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (the LGSCO). Both the PHSO and LGSCO consider complaints of maladministration in the provision of public services. Maladministration can be defined as the public body not having acted properly or fairly, or having given a poor service and not put things right.
We found that the current ombuds already considered human rights during their investigations, and so creating a new role would likely create jurisdictional overlap, add to what was already at times a confusing and complex landscape, and risk duplication of work. We therefore do not recommend that a new Human Rights Ombudsperson be created.
Instead, we recommend ways in which the current framework could be altered to make it easier for people to bring complaints, including those involving their human rights. Whilst we welcome attempts by the current ombuds to improve public awareness of their role we call on them to do more in this regard, with a particular focus on those groups who are traditionally harder to reach and are perhaps more likely to be in situations where their human rights are engaged by the actions of public authorities. In order to do so, we recommend more joint working between the existing schemes, with other relevant bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and with relevant NGOs who may already have good existing community contacts through casework and local groups.
We also call on the Government to consider legislative change. Whilst the existing ombuds can and do consider human rights issues and frame complaints in human rights terms, we believe there may be a case for looking at making this mandate clearer by amending the relevant legislation to make reference to human rights. The fact that people cannot complain directly to the PHSO but instead must do so through their MP (the ‘MP filter’) is potentially a barrier to people seeking to bring complaints, including about their human rights. The Government should review the operation of the MP filter.
At present the LGSCO, PHSO and the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) are not able to initiate their own inquiries, unlike the public services ombuds in Northern Ireland and Wales. Own initiative powers would allow the ombuds to launch an investigation when they have identified potential systemic failings in public bodies, including failings that may have impacted on people’s human rights. We recommend that the Government consider whether the LGSCO and PHSO should have own initiative powers. We do not make recommendations relating to the SPSO as any reforms are a matter for the Scottish Government.
Finally, we note that the Government, in 2016, published a draft Bill which would have merged existing ombuds to create one Public Service Ombudsman for England, and the whole of the UK for reserved matters. We have heard that simplifying the current ombuds landscape would make it significantly easier for individuals to make complaints, including those where human rights are engaged. Given the potentially significant benefits that a public service ombudsman could have for people making complaints, we are disappointed that the Government has not brought forward ombuds reform and urge them to do so.