This House of Commons Briefing Paper looks at the role of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, and recent proposals for its reform.
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What is the Parliamentary Ombudsman?
The Parliamentary Ombudsman investigates complaints from members of the public who believe that they have suffered injustice because a government department or certain public bodies have not acted properly or fairly, or have given a poor service and not put things right.
The Parliamentary Ombudsman is one of two ombudsman offices (the other being the Health Service Ombudsman) which, by convention, is held by the same person. That person is known as the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, although the two posts are technically seperate offices. Information about the Health Service Ombudsman can be found in Library Briefing Paper CBP 7168, NHS Complaints Procedure in England.
The Parliamentary Obudsman’s (hereafter the Ombudsman) powers and responsibilities are set out in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, as amended.
The current Ombudsman is Sir Rob Behrens CBE.
What powers does the Ombudsman have?
The Ombudsman has the right to summon persons and papers (i.e., to require the attendance of witnesses and to have access to information) and absolute privilege to protect his or her reports. These powers are analagous to the powers of a High Court Judge.
However, the Ombudsman is not able to enforce her recommendations. If the Ombudsman finds in favour of the complainant, and against the department, she has no power to alter the department’s decision or award compensation. In most case, the department or public body will come to an agreement on an acceptable outcome. However, if the Ombudsman believes that an injustice has been done that is unlikely to be remedied she can make a special report to Parliament. This happens very rarely: there have only been seven such special reports made since 1967.
How can I make a complaint to the Ombudsman and what is the ‘MP filter’?
It is not possible for individuals to complain directly to the Ombudsman; their complaint needs to be referred by a Member of Parliament. This requirement, set out in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, is known as the ‘MP filter’.
There is no requirement for a Member of Parliament to refer a case to the Ombudsman. A constituent may, however, approach another MP, if their MP decides not to forward the complaint. There is no requirement in legislation that it must be the constituency MP who makes the referral. However, there is a general convention that MPs do not deal with the cases of those who are not their constituents. Referral to the Ombudsman by another MP would therefore be unusual. An MP may also refer a case to the Parliamentary Ombudsman without supporting it, as such.
There is a form on the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s website for complainants to fill in, with a section for an MP to add their details and sign if they wish to send the complaint on. The Parliamentary Ombudsman requires that the complainant must first have put their grievance to the department or public body concerned to allow officials to respond before taking the matter further.
The Parliamentary Ombudsman also acts as the Health Service Ombudsman under separate legislation and for such healthcare matters no MP referral is necessary.
Can I complain about the Parliamentary Ombudsman?
There is no right of appeal against decisions of the Ombudsman. The office is independent of Government and Parliament and decisions cannot be overuled by a Government department or Parliamentary Committee. It is, however, possible to complain to the Ombudsman about their decisions. The Ombudsman’s website explains the complaints procedure.
Decisions of the Ombudsman are also subject to judicial review. Such a procedure is both complex and expensive and a constituent would be well advised to take legal advice before taking this route.
The work of the Ombudsman is monitored by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.
The Ombudsman and devolution
The Parliamentary Ombudsmen deals with reserved matters in relation to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as complaints about maladministration in UK Government departments and public bodies. It therefore has a mix of jurisdictions. Separate ombudsman structures exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
A public service Ombudsman for the UK
On 5 December 2016 the Government published a draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill. The Bill would create a Public Service Ombudsman (PSO) for UK reserved matters and public services in England.
The draft Bill abolishes the existing Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), merging their responsibilities into a single PSO. The Housing Ombudsman would continue unaffected. However, the draft Bill does contain provisions which may allow some of its responsibilities to be absorbed by the PSO at a later date.
Other public service ombudsman – in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – are also unaffected by the draft Bill, although it is envisaged that the new PSO will work with these existing ombudsmen.
How to contact the Ombudsman
The Ombudsman’s office has a customer helpline: 0345 015 4033. They also offer advice and information on their website about how to complain, along with information for Members of Parliament and their staff: www.ombudsman.org.uk.