Nicky Morgan is MP for Loughborough and a member of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee.
Access to independent, impartial ombudsmen should be a cornerstone of any democratic society that values transparency, justice and checks on power. Organisations offering services to the public – often at a cost of millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money – must be held to account when things go wrong, and cannot be allowed to blame a lack of resources as an excuse for poor service delivery.
The public sector and private sector ombudsmen play a vital, if often overlooked, role in ensuring this accountability really happens. I firmly believe that if the ombudsmen are truly effective, and if the organisations investigated actually learn from the judgements made against them, then there are real gains to be made – both in terms of cost of service provision and in user satisfaction.
As the Public Bodies Bill returns to the House of Commons this week for consideration of Lord’s amendments, I think it is an ideal time for the Government to review the role and remit of the public sector ombudsmen. The ombudsman sector is clearly a candidate for reform, a subject I sought to address in my recent pamphlet, The Ombudsmen: Time for Reform? (published by Bretwalda Books), which explores the role of three particular ombudsmen, two from the public sector and one from the private sector, respectively: the Health Service Ombudsman, the Local Government Ombudsman for England and the Financial Ombudsman Service.
There are four key questions that need to be asked about the performance of these ombudsmen: are they being used by the right people? Are the complainants getting a satisfactory result? Are the organisations or bodies complained about addressing the cause of poor service and learning from past failures? And, last but not least, are their investigations being carried out in a cost effective way resulting in a long-term net benefit for the taxpayer?
The answers to these questions emerging from my research present a strong case for considering reform in five key areas. First, in terms of public awareness of the role ombudsmen play in holding organisations to account, it should be made clearer that at least some of the ombudsmen can examine not only maladministration but also service failure and the decisions taken by those providing services.
Second, the role of the Public Administration Select Committee needs to be looked at and, where necessary, beefed up – particularly for it to examine the work of the Local Government Ombudsman as well as the Health Service Ombudsman.
Third, transparency in reporting outcomes of investigations needs to be considered, including the possibility of increasing publication of reports by ombudsmen, on an anonymous basis if necessary. Moreover, it would also be useful to consider whether the organisations complained about should be required to report publicly on what they have done to remedy service failures.
Fourth, there is clearly a need to explore further how investigations can be triggered, so that in some cases ombudsmen should be able to investigate matters on their own initiative.
Finally, while the Cabinet Office currently provides a resource for ombudsman-related issues, it may be time to consider whether the public would find it easier to deal with a one-stop complaints service. With this in mind, the option of merging ombudsmen should be on the table.
It is clearly time for reform of this area of administrative justice to be re-examined, and I think these five areas would be an excellent place to start. Reform of the ombudsmen should be a priority for this Government, which has placed transparency, fairness and responsibility at the heart of its policy agenda.