How the Tories keep our Parliamentary Ombudsman powerless – while telling the rest of the world they back the highest standards

Rob Behrens Parliamentary Ombudsman

A high powered peer review of the Parliamentary Ombudsman has exposed the hypocrisy and double standards of the present UK government towards people having the right to redress from bad and unfair public and NHS treatment.

The report released from an international panel of Ombudsmen , an academic and a UK housing ombudsman concludes with a polite but damning assessment of the failure of the government to keep its word to strengthen the Ombudsman’s powers. Members of the panel included both the Greek and Israeli Ombudsmen and a respected academic, Professor Robert Thomas, Professor of Public Law, University of Manchester.

The UK is a member of the Council of Europe Venice Commission which lays down what are known as the ” Venice Principles” – an international standard to guarantee the independence of the Ombudsman and the human rights of people to have direct access to the Ombudsman to make complaints about their treatment by public services.

The UK then co-sponsored a UN resolution incorporating these standards for the entire world – telling every country that Britain was in the lead on this issue.

But then under successive Tory governments of Boris Johnson, Elizabeth Truss and Rishi Sunak nothing has not only been done but ministers have taken active steps to thwart reform.

The most obvious example is Michael Gove, who used his power in the Cabinet Office, to block any bill-even a draft bill- coming before Parliament to the despair of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (Pacac) which under a Tory MP wanted this to happen.

The situation is remarkably similar to the government’s attitude towards the UN Convention on the elimination of all discrimination against women and girls (CEDAW) which Margaret Thatcher ratified in 1986 and had still not been properly implemented 40 years on . This is now the subject of a review from the convention in Geneva which criticises the UK for not implementing it properly and is demanding answers.

The conclusions of the peer review couldn’t be clearer:

Professor Rob Thomas Pic credit: Administrative Justice Council

“The ‘Venice Principles’ lay down a set of international standards and principles on the protection and promotion of Ombudsman institutions. These have been accepted by the UK, as a member of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe in 2019. They were also adopted by the UN in a motion co-sponsored by the UK Government in 2020.

” In several respects, PHSO’s legal framework complies with the ‘Venice Principles’, but not in other respects. PHSO’s statutory framework is now out of date and widely seen as being unnecessarily restrictive. PHSO is also out of line with other UK Ombudsman offices, which possess powers that PHSO does not.
“This means that citizens in some parts of the UK do not have the same rights as others. We are aware that reform of the Ombudsman is a long standing and unresolved issue, although it has become an increasingly urgent matter which makes the work of PHSO more difficult. PHSO is doing everything it can reasonably do to make the argument for reform. What is required is action from the UK Government and Parliament. Any reform must maintain PHSO’s direct reporting line into Parliament to preserve its absolute independence from Government.

Andreas Pottakis, Greek Ombudsman and President the International Ombudsman Institute -Europe

The report backs this up with a traffic light (red, amber, green) system of points where it measures the consistency and performance of the Ombudsman with the Venice principles.. Nearly all the red and amber points are caused by the failure of the government to legislate to strengthen the Ombudsman.

The government does not meet the principle that “Any individual or legal person, including NGOs, shall have the right to free, unhindered and free of charge access to the Ombudsman, and to file a complaint.” Instead a complaint has to be filtered by an MP or in the case of the NHS there has to be a “safe space” for administrators to look at the complaint before the Ombudsman can act.

There is no legal provision to protect whistleblowers who contact him. He, unlike his Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Ombudsmen cannot initiate investigations. It is not clear whether he has full powers to force people to respond to him and certainly his recommendations don’t have to be followed by the government if he finds maladministration. There is not proper protection for his position by law and even the recruitment of a successor is limited, so not all people can apply.

Venice Principles give Ombudsman right to recommend changes to the law

The Venice Principles give him the right ” to have the power to present, in public, recommendations to Parliament or the Executive, including to amend legislation or to adopt new legislation” and this is definitely not allowed in England – otherwise he could go further on the case of the 50swomen who lost their pensions for up to six years.

Now you might think the Ombudsman would make a great deal out of this report to press the government to expand his powers or show up ministers for failing to keep their obligations to an international agreement they signed.

But the heading on his website is “World’s first official international ombudsman review finds UK service is robust and good value “. Yes the report does make good points about improvements in the running of the Ombudsman’s |Office but its fundamental objection is given muted coverage – buried down in the copy.

Further down the press release Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, says: “The peer review rightly says that the UK is out-of-step with other modern Ombudsman services in terms of our statutory framework. Without powers of own initiative, I am hamstrung from investigating many systemic issues that no one is looking at. Legislative reform of the UK Ombudsman service would mean fewer barriers to justice and more opportunities to prevent injustice happening in the future.”

I think a more gutsy Ombudsman would fight his corner better -particularly as this government is on the back foot when it comes to defending decent public services and upholding standards in public life.

A more cynical explanation is that the government don’t want the public to have greater rights to complain as they are fearful of more bad administration and scandals coming to light But they want the rest of the world to think Britain is a beacon of good government in this area -knowing this is a lie.

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Andreas I. Pottakis