Written evidence from Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman (HRO0002)
Dear Ms Harman
Thank you for the opportunity to contribute the current inquiry into establishing a Human Rights Ombudsman. Please find our response to Committee’s questions below. We are happy to provide any additional clarification and evidence that will assist the inquiry.
About the Ombudsman
The Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) is the statutory body for complaints about all local councils and all CQC registered adult care providers in England. It is a free service. Our role is to investigate complaints in a fair and independent way – we do not take sides.
We look into the circumstances of an individual complaint and make judgements on whether the person affected has suffered injustice. We then make recommendations for improvement.
These recommendations can be at an individual level and are designed to put the person affected back into the situation they would have been in had they not suffered the injustice. We also make recommendations for overall service improvements. Although we don’t have formal enforcement powers, we have very high compliance with our recommendations from the bodies in our jurisdiction; our compliance rate is consistently over 99.5%.
We also have a role in improving services as a whole and do this by sharing the learning from our complaints through our thematic reports and guidance
Should there be a Human Rights Ombudsperson? If so, what powers and resources would the ombudsperson need to address the challenges people face in enforcing their rights out of court?
We consider that effective and accessible ombudsman schemes play a key role in safeguarding and promoting human rights. Ombudsman schemes are uniquely placed to provide redress when individual’s rights are neglected, and use the lessons learned from complaints to drive improvements to public services.
We welcome the objectives of the JCHR to promote the role of human rights in the Ombudsman sector. However, we do not believe it is necessary to create a new Ombudsman service to achieve these aims. Our reasons for this are below:
The current Ombudsman framework
We consider the existing Ombudsman framework in the UK provides an effective means for members of the public to seek redress on rights-based issues, outside of the court system:
Risks in creating a new scheme
We consider there are risks in creating a standalone human rights ombudsman scheme, existing alongside current public sector ombudsman schemes. We believe such a scheme would cause confusion, complexity, and fragmentation in an already crowded redress system, and not represent an efficient use of public resource. Our specific concerns are that:
Scope to improve current system
We believe a more cost-effective and streamlined approach would be to improve the current ombudsman framework through strengthening our legal powers. This could include:
What powers would the ombudsperson need to ensure they provide an effective remedy, as required by Article 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights, for individuals trying to enforce their rights?
The LGSCO consistently achieves over 99% compliance with non-binding recommendations, and we can take effective follow-up actions in those cases where we see non-compliance with recommendations.
We do not think the LGSCO needs extra powers of enforcement, particularly where that might conflict with the sovereignty of local democracy. Our model works by listening to both parties and investigating robustly. Our decisions have force because they represent a credible and compelling analysis of the facts. And we achieve effective outcomes by operating in partnership with others as part of a wider system of democratic accountability. We will use the media to publicly highlight stories about the rare exceptions when organisations do not comply and let others judge those organisations and their leaders. And we can escalate those isolated cases to regulators, locally elected members, or Parliament to take further action.
When someone has suffered because of fault, we try to put them back in the position they would have been if that error had not happened. We focus on restoring services that have been denied and recommending practical steps to put things right. Where that is not possible, we will try to think of creative remedies that acknowledge the impact of faults. When we recommend a payment, it is often a modest, symbolic amount. It is not our role to assess economic losses or award compensation.
When assessing complaints, we will look closely at the remedy sought by complainants. In cases where members of the public solely seek a determinative and binding judgment on whether their rights have been breached, then it is likely an ombudsman will decide the courts are better placed to consider the matter.
How would the Human Rights Ombudsperson interact with existing mechanisms such as ombudspersons and Commissioners, including in the devolved nations?
There is already well established and effective multi-lateral collaboration between UK ombudsman schemes and wider regulatory sector, including:
How would the Human Rights Ombudsperson interact with other bodies tasked with upholding human rights, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission?
As noted above, we consider there is already effective cross collaboration between UK ombudsman schemes, and the wider regulatory sector. With regards the LGSCO, we have worked closely with the EHRC to ensure:
We consider the current system could be strengthened through promoting better public understanding of the respective and complementary roles of ombudsman schemes, the EHRC, and the courts, so members of public are better informed about the most appropriate avenue for their complaints.
Are there other steps that should be taken alongside introducing a Human Rights Ombudsperson to ensure people can effectively enforce their rights out of court?
For the reasons given above, we consider that specific legislative improvements or wider reform to the existing ombudsman framework in the UK would better support the aims of the JCHR’s proposals, as opposed to creating a distinct human rights ombudsman service.
We hope this evidence and information will be of use to the inquiry. We also look forward to providing oral evidence to the committee next week to expand on any areas of interest to the Committee.
Mr Michael King
Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman for England
Chair, Commission for Local Administration in England