The very final tier that any complaint about a public body can ascend to is the Ombudsman. These are government bodies, accountable to the Public Accounts Committee, who determine whether maladministration has been caused by a public body and, if so, what redress is necessary. There are a myriad of different ombudsman each with a slightly different remit, which often confuses complainants, making it difficult to identify which body to complain to. In addition the Ombudsman will not investigate complaints that can be resolved via legal redress.
In this blog post I have outlined the new draft bill to simplify the Ombudsman system. I will then give an example of the common problems faced and then state how continual improvement can be made.
The new Draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill was introduced to Parliament on the 05.12.2016. It called for a single Ombudsman to minimize the confusion caused of the complainant having to approach numerous different bodies before finding the relevant Ombudsman. The new legislation would change the following.
- One Single Public Ombudsman merging together Local Government, Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.
- Abolish the MP filter. Where complaints about MPs had to be passed directly to MPs themselves. MPs would then pass the complaint on to the parliamentary bodies after checking whether the complaint is relevant.
- Clause 4 of the proposed legislation removes the requirement that complaints have to be in writing.
- Ombudsman can now re-open, revise or open a new case connecting to a complaint if it considers it is in the public interest to do so.
- Additional powers so that the Housing Ombudsman can be merged into the Public Service Ombudsman at a later date.
Complaint Case Study
To demonstrate a particular disparity between ombudsman awards, is evidenced by the following case. Mr. H is a tenant of a Housing Association. He moved into the property in December 2009. Since moving into the property he has been accumulating arrears for no apparent reason. He contacted housing benefit who informed him that he was being paid full housing benefit. In March 2014 he received a notice seeking possession and a court witness statement later that month. The tribunal was settled in Mr. H’s favor after he could demonstrate that full housing benefit was being paid covering all his rent.
In October 2014 we wrote a Stage One complaint to the Housing Association requesting an explanation as to why rent arrears had accumulated despite housing benefit covering his full rent, but real explanation was forthcoming. In 2015 the same mistake was repeated and several erroneous notices of rent arrears were sent to Mr. H in March and May. We contacted his Landlord several times throughout this period and finally in August the matter was resolved. Throughout the period we submitted a stage one two complaint without a clear explanation as to what was happing.
In March 2016 we submitted our complaint to the Housing Ombudsman. We received a response a year later. It confirmed that there had been repeated errors after the determination of the error in 2014 and the repeated mistake, issuing rent arrears again in 2015. No clear explanation was provided of how the mistake had occurred. The Housing Ombudsman offered £200 to Mr. H for not providing an explanation and a further £50 for the inconvenience caused.
Having reviewed the Local Government Ombudsman levels of compensation I noticed that £100 for a court summons and £100 for a notice seeking possession. I emailed the housing ombudsman to see if this could be added to his total level of compensation and was informed that it could not be included.
Overall the Public Service Ombudsman Bill will be useful in ensuring that the complaint process is simpler and more accessible for most complainants. However there are a number of issues that still need to be addressed.
- Consistency of levels of compensations. As demonstrated above the Local Government Ombudsman and the Housing Ombudsman have very different guidance on this matter. Their remit overlaps as housing providers can erroneously issue summons, whilst summons can be issued as a result of housing benefit not being paid due to error for the local authority. A single set of guidance needs to be published encompassing the full amount of remedies in order to reduce disparity in the future.
- What was not addressed in this response, was the lost opportunity to be able to bid on the housing list as a result of the arrears. Whilst I accept that there is currently a housing shortage. The Public Service Ombudsman should have increased powers to ensure that priority is given to those who have lost out in being housed as a result of error caused by either the local authority or housing authority
- The length of delay in determining this account also makes complaining problematic. In the case above it took a year between 17/03/2016-18/03/2017. This is detrimental in cases, where answers need to be decided quickly. A general mechanism should be implemented in order to speed up the complaint process.
- The Parliamentary Briefing Paper Draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill (January 2016) in addition found that decisions remain not binding on the respondent authority. Ombudsman decisions should be binding as they have no enforcement procedures in place to compel a public body to carry out their decision.
- There will be no lead ombudsman in each specific arear of the scope of the remit of the organization.
- In addition the ombudsman cannot investigate on their own initiative. A complaint has to be submitted first.
Therefore whilst the bill goes some way to solve some of the issues with the present system. More work needs to be done. We will be continuing to use the system and monitor to establish how effective the new system will be.