The Government has said it will continue to develop the detail of the proposed single public services ombudsman (PSO) for England, but has confirmed that the Housing Ombudsman will remain a separate body at the outset.
In the Government’s response to consultation, the Cabinet Office said it would “work with interested parties to clarify further the role, structure, governance, and accountability of the new service”.
Following this, the Cabinet Office intends to publish draft legislation that sets out the detail of the proposals for further consideration before the end of the current Parliamentary session.
The Government’s comments in its response included:
- Having considered points and concerns raised by housing sector representatives carefully, it would work to create a single service which will encompass the existing jurisdictions of the Local Government Ombudsman and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman only in the first instance with a framework that allows others (such as the Housing Ombudsman) to join over time.
- The PSO will have a modern governance structure, including a statutory chair and board. The Ombudsman will also be made more directly accountable to MPs; the Government will seek views from Parliament on ways that it can provide stronger external scrutiny of the organisation.
- It was important for the PSO to be seen as credible and authoritative by both those who used its service and those it investigated. The Government would expect there to be a high level of sector-specific knowledge and investigatory expertise within the organisation. “However we also wish to create a service that is coherent in its approach across public services and which adapts easily to changes in the nature and volume of the complaints it investigates. As such, we do not see the necessity to legislate for a cadre of lead ombudsman but will instead seek to vest in PSO powers to delegate responsibility to staff as it feels appropriate.”
- The Government proposes that, once the complaints procedure has been exhausted, there would be a statutory duty on the organisation to signpost to the PSO, who would continue to act as the final tier of redress.
- The PSO should operate a ‘no wrong door’ approach, referring individuals and possibly transferring their complaints where they fall wholly or partly within the jurisdiction of another complaints resolution body (e.g. the ombudsmen for the devolved administrations, the Information Commissioner).
- The Government is minded to legislate for dual track access, whereby an individual would be able to approach the PSO directly or with the assistance of a representative. “However we must take into account the views of MPs themselves on this issue and remain open to further discussions following the publication of draft legislation.”
- The Government wanted the PSO to use its expertise and insight to monitor and champion improvements in complaints handling. It will be given express powers to publish guidance, reports and training materials promoting best practice in complaints handling including principles, processes and analysis. “This supports the creation of a ‘complaints culture’ in which the learning from complaints is disseminated widely and built upon while allowing those delivering public services to remain in control of, and accountable for, the design of their own complaints systems.”
- The PSO would be give the following powers: to conduct joint investigations with others where the subject matter of the complaint falls within multiple jurisdictions, e.g. with the national ombudsmen in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; to widen the scope of an individual investigation, where it appears that injustice may have been suffered as a result of similar maladministration elsewhere; to share its reports with prescribed others, such as regulators and inspectors, with a view to making sure that its findings and recommendations feed into the appropriate oversight mechanisms; and wider powers to publish the outcomes of its investigations and on any general themes arising.
- The PSO would not be given the power to bring ‘own initiative’ investigations.
- The Ombudsman would report to Parliament on its investigations, “including where it appears that the injustice caused to an individual(s) has not been remedied”. The PSO’s findings will not be binding.
The Government’s response was welcomed by both the Local Government Ombudsman and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.
They jointly said: “The current complaint system is far too complex and fragmented, leaving people confused as to which ombudsman to turn to if things go wrong or haven’t been resolved locally. The creation of a single Public Ombudsman Service will make it easier for people to complain when they have been let down by a public service.
"We will continue to offer our support to Government and Parliament as they make these vital reforms a reality.”
The Government’s consultation paper, A Public Services Ombudsman, was published in March this year. It followed proposals put forward by Robert Gordon in his report to Government, Better to serve the public.