The Government published a draft bill on 5 December that would create a Public Service Ombudsman for UK reserved matters and public services in England. The draft bill would abolish the existing Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and the Local Government Ombudsman, merging their existing responsibilities into a single Public Service Ombudsman (PSO). The draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill aims to simplify the public service ombudsman system, while also ‘modernising’ aspects of it. The Government expects its proposals will “make it easier than ever before to rectify complaints about a range of public services.” One of the draft bill’s most notable features is the removal of the ‘MP filter’ – the requirement that all complaints to the existing Parliamentary Ombudsman (PO) must be made through an MP. This filter is unique to the PO.

What is an ombudsman and what can they do?

An ombudsman is someone appointed to look into complaints from the public against a public authority (although ombudsman also exist for the private sector). Complaints to an ombudsman must usually concern ‘maladministration’, i.e., a public body not having acted properly or fairly or having given a poor service. Ombudsmen have the power to recommend corrective action, and to issue a report. However, their recommendations are not usually enforceable.

What are the current arrangements?

At present, there are several ombudsmen for different public services across the UK. The PO investigates complaints of maladministration by UK government departments and associated public bodies. It is the only ombudsman with a UK-wide remit. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own unified public service ombudsmen covering public services devolved there (including the devolved administrations, their associated public bodies, and certain health and local government services). In England, there are several ombudsmen covering these public services. They are:

  • the Health Service Ombudsman (HSO)
  • the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), and;
  • the Housing Ombudsman (HO).

In addition to her UK-wide remit, the PO has jurisdiction over ‘England only’ UK government departments, such as the Department for Education. By convention, the positions of PO and HSO are held by the same person, known as the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO).

Can the  complaints process be simplified?

In 2014 a report by Robert Gordon QC on reforming the ombudsmen landscape concluded that the existing public service ombudsmen system complicates the complaints process, as people often didn’t know who to complain to. It recommended that the Government should: ‘…legislate to create a single public service ombudsman, comprising the current remits and responsibilities of the PO, HSO, LGO and HO.’ In 2015 the Government consulted on Gordon’s recommendations. During this consultation, a number of representatives from the housing sector questioned whether the HO, whose remit covers private as well as social landlords, should be included in a scheme set up to investigate failures in public service. These concerns were acknowledged by the Government, and the published draft bill doesn’t therefore abolish the Housing Ombudsman. However, it does contain provisions which could enable some of its responsibilities to be absorbed at a later date. Some argued that the Government’s proposals following the consultation did not go far enough. One blog concluded that the proposals looked like “a pragmatic merger of two/three ombudsman schemes with a bit of modernisation thrown in, rather than a bold attempt to reinvigorate the ombudsman model”. However, both Dame Julie Mellor, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, and Dr Jane Martin, the Local Government Ombudsman, have jointly welcomed the publication of the final draft bill, commenting that: ‘The creation of a single Public Ombudsman Service will make it easier for people to have their complaints about public services resolved.  The current complaint system is too complex and fragmented, leaving people confused as to which ombudsman to turn to if things go wrong or haven’t been resolved locally.’

Abolishing the ‘MP filter’

The draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill does not apply the MP filter to the proposed PSO. Instead, it allows the public to complain directly. The MP filter is a unique requirement of the PO. It was introduced by the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, which created the PO, and was initially intended as a temporary measure, to be phased out after five years. One of the ideas behind it was that MPs could filter any complaints that did not fall within the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s remit, preventing the newly established body from being swamped with complaints to investigate. The MP filter only applies to the PHSO when acting as PO. Complaints relating to NHS services can already be made directly.

What are the implications of these changes?

Critics of the MP filter have long argued that it unnecessarily slows the complaints process and restricts people’s direct access to administrative justice. In their 2014 Report, Time for a People’s Ombudsman Service, the Public Administration Select Committee concluded that the MP filter, ‘…disempowers citizens, obstructs access to their rights, and deters people from making complaints.’ Yet some complainants welcome the role their MP has played in driving their complaints forward. Several MPs also see the requirement as a way of keeping in touch with constituency problems. However, there would still be a potential role for MPs in the complaints process. The draft bill permits a complainant to authorise a person (such as an MP) to act on their behalf to refer a case to the PSO. In other words, they can choose whether they want to make their complaint directly themselves or seek assistance from an MP (or another representative) to do so.

What happens now?

Draft bills are published to enable consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, and the timetable for this bill is not yet known. Most draft bills are examined either by a select committee in the House of Commons or in the House of Lords, or by a joint committee of both Houses. After consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny has taken place, the Bill can be introduced formally in the House of Commons or House of Lords.   The House of Commons Library Briefing Paper A Public Service Ombudsman for the UK looks at the Government’s earlier proposals to bring forward a draft bill for a single public service ombudsman, and sets out the existing ombudsman landscape for public services across the UK. An updated version, reflecting the publication of the draft bill, will be available shortly. Picture credit: Blurred Lines (Explored – 11/03/15), by Phil Dolby; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)