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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.

What is an ombudsman?

An ombudsman is a person appointed to receive complaints from an aggrieved person against a public authority (although ombudsmen also exist for the private sector). They usually have the power to investigate, to recommend corrective action, and to issue a report. According to the Ombudsman Association, ombudsmen offer their services “free of charge, and are thus accessible to individuals who could not afford to pursue their complaints through the courts

In the UK, the focus of ombudsmen in the public sector concerns complaints of maladministration by public bodies.

The term ‘maladministration’ is not defined in the legislation which established the various public services ombudsmen in the UK. However, it can be broadly defined as the public body not having acted properly or fairly, or having given a poor service and not put things right.

What does the draft Bill do?

The draft Bill would:

  • Create a single Public Service Ombudsman for UK reserved matters and for public services delivered solely in England, absorbing the existing remits and responsibilities of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Health Service Ombudsman and the Local Government Ombudsman.
  • Abolish the existing Parliamentary Ombudsman, Health Service Ombudsman and Local Government Ombudsman.
  • Abolish the MP filter, meaning that all complaints of maladministration can be made directly to the PSO. Currently, complaints to the Parliamentary Ombudsman have to be made through an MP – this is known as the ‘MP filter’. Under the draft Bill MPs would still be able to submit complaints if constituents wanted them to.
  • Create a statutory body, known as the Board of the Public Service Ombudsman, to provide staff and resources for the PSO to carry out her functions.
  • Provide for Parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of the Board
  • Equip the PSO with powers to investigate complaints and to promote good complaints handling.
  • The Housing Ombudsman is unaffected by the draft Bill and would continue. However, the draft Bill gives the Minister for the Cabinet Office the power to pass secondary legislation which would enable its responsibilities surrounding complaints against social landlords to be absorbed into the PSO’s remit at a later date.

Other public service ombudsman – in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – are unaffected by the draft Bill, although it is envisaged that the new PSO will work with these existing ombudsmen.

Does the draft Bill go far enough?

The provisions in the draft Bill are unlikely to be controversial.

Most of the criticism to date has focused on what has not been included. In particular:

  • the new PSO does not have ‘own initiative powers’, i.e. the power to open a case without having to receive a complaint first.
  • the draft Bill’s silence on whether the PSO’s findings would be binding has been labelled a “regressive move which undermines the ombud’s ability to deliver justice”.
  • the draft Bill has also been criticised for offering a “conservative” model of ombudsman.

What happens to a draft Bill?

Draft Bills are published to enable consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. 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 may be introduced either in the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

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