House of Commons Library

A Public Service Ombudsman for the UK

Published Monday, July 25, 2016

This House of Commons Library Briefing Paper looks at the Government's proposal to bring forward a draft bill for a public service ombudsman which will provide a unified ombudsman service for UK reserved matters and public services delivered solely in England. It also looks at the existing ombudsman landscape for public services across the UK.

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Proposed draft public service ombudsman bill

The Government announced in the 2015 Queen’s Speech that they would publish a Draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill to “absorb the functions of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Health Ombudsman, the Local Government Ombudsman and potentially the Housing Ombudsman”. This followed a report by Robert Gordon QC (October 2014), which had recommended that the Government should legislate to create a new single public service ombudsman.

To date, no draft bill has been published. The Queen’s Speech 2016 did not mention legislation for a public sector ombudsman, although responses to Parliamentary Questions shortly before the end of the 2015/16 Parliamentary Session indicated that the Government still intended to publish draft legislation “as soon as reasonably possible”.

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.

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 service 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.

An ombudsman is a Scandianavian concept. The term is derived from a Swedish word which means a representative or agent of the people, or group of people.

Differences between ombudsmen and the courts

There are important distinctions between ombudsmen and the courts. The courts determine whether people have suffered damage as a result of unlawful actions. In other words, they are concerned with the legality of an action or decision. Ombudsmen are not empowered to determine whether the law has been breached.

An ombudsman asks different questions from those asked in a court and looks at different issues. An ombudsman case does not involve lawyers or litigation, and generally proceeds more informally than a court case, using inquisitorial methods rather than the more adversarial model of a court. Investigations of maladministration, particularly in complex cases, can take nine months or sometimes much longer.

Ultimately, ombudsmen offer an alternative system of justice to taking a case to court, but they are not a substitute or surrogate court.

Current public service ombudsmen in the UK

At present, there are a number of ombudsmen for different elements of public services across the UK.

The only ombudsman who has a UK-wide remit is the Parliamentary Ombudsman, who can investigate complaints of maladministration by UK government departments across the UK and in England only. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all now have unified public service ombudsmen covering the public services devolved in those areas. In England there are currently several ombudsmen covering such services, including the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Health Service Ombudsman, the Local Government Ombudsman and the Housing Ombudsman.

Although there is not a single model of public service ombudsman in the UK, each of the ombudsmen described above is empowered to investigate complaints of maladministration, but some also have wider remits. Another general similarity is that, with the exception of the Housing Ombudsman for England, none of the public service ombudsmen is able to enforce their recommendations or decisions. Instead they can, and usually must, produce a report outlining their findings and make recommendations about the appropriate action that a public body should take in order to remedy the injustice.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7587

Author: Michael Everett

Topics: Central government, Health services, Local government, Parliament, Patient rights and complaints, Public administration

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