WLGA Evidence


Finance Committee Inquiry: Consideration of powers: Public Services Ombudsman for Wales


February 2015


The WLGA welcomes the opportunity to present evidence to the Committee on its inquiry into the consideration of powers for the Public Services Ombudsman.


The WLGA is aware that this inquiry could potentially lead to new legislation concerning the Ombudsman’s powers being introduced, possibly by this Committee, before the end of this Assembly term. Clearly the Committee must conclude its Inquiry, which may or may not lead to proposals to introduce legislation as a result. 


The WLGA notes however that a Committee Inquiry which led to the introduction of a significant new piece of legislation could mean a curtailed process around policy review and legislative scrutiny given it is our understanding that a Committee Bill would automatically bypass the Stage 1 Committee process. If this is the case, there would be reduced scope for effective consultation and engagement with the general public and public bodies affected by policy proposals and legislation. 


The WLGA therefore would request that should the Committee decide to move to legislation, that a Draft Bill is published to encourage the widest opportunity for consultation before the formal introduction of the Bill.



1. What are your views on the effectiveness of the current Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Act 2005?


The Act is generally regarded as effective. As noted by the Ombudsman’s own submission to the Committee, the Law Commission commented favourably on the Act but put forward a number of proposed amendments to clarify and improve the Ombudsman’s role.


Own initiative investigations


2. Currently, the Ombudsman may only investigate a matter that is the subject of a complaint made to him/her. What are your views on ‘own initiative’ investigations powers, which would enable the Ombudsman to initiate his/her own investigations without having first received a complaint about an issue. Please explain your answer.

3. Do you have any concerns that own-initiative investigation powers could result in the Ombudsman’s responsibilities overlapping with the responsibilities of other bodies? How could this be managed?

4. Do you have a view on the likely financial costs and benefits of the Ombudsman having own-initiative powers?


The WLGA recognises the Ombudsman’s frustration where his current powers prevent him from exploring suspected wider concerns within public services stemming from an investigation into an initial individual complaint. The WLGA however shares the Welsh Government’s concerns over the risks of ‘mission-creep’ (as stated in a letter to the Communities, Equalities and Local Government Committee from Minister for Local Government and Government Business on 12th February 2014). In principle, it is of course appropriate that such concerns over wider and potentially systemic public service issues should be investigated, however there are a number of investigatory bodies whose role it is to examine matters of governance or public service concerns or improvements. There would be scope for duplication between the Ombudsman and these existing bodies, such as the Auditor General for Wales, as well as potential burden for public service bodies.

complaints as a result of any legislative changes. Should this Inquiry lead to legislation, a more thorough Regulatory Impact Assessment should be completed which should assess the potential impact, particularly in terms of workload on the Ombudsman’s office and public services as a result. In principle however, it is difficult to quantify the value of a regulatory or complaints regime which seeks to provide assurance and public confidence about public services, provides support and redress to individuals who have had a complaint upheld and contributes to wider service improvements.


22. Do you have any comments on the following issues:


·         jurisdiction – changes to the devolution settlement have led to new areas coming into jurisdiction over time, should consideration be given to other bodies being included in the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction;

See 18 above


·         recommendations and findings - should the recommendations of the Ombudsman to public bodies be binding. This would mean that bodies cannot decide to reject the findings;


The current approach to Ombudsman recommendations works effectively in Wales. The relationship between the Ombudsman and public services is based on early, open and constructive dialogue, where ‘quick fixes’ are encouraged. The regulatory relationship would shift significantly if recommendations were made to be binding, with implications for local democratic discretion and/or challenge or appeal.


·         protecting the title - there has been a proliferation of schemes calling themselves ombudsmen, often without satisfying the key criteria of the concept such as independence from those in jurisdiction and being free to the complainant. Should anyone intending to use the title ombudsman gain approval from the Ombudsman;


The WLGA does not have strong views on this matter.


·         code of conduct complaints – the Ombudsman would prefer to focus on the element of his work that deals with service users and service delivery, rather than local authority and town and community councils’ resolutions. Whilst a local resolution procedures exists and has been adopted by 22 local authorities, variance exists in practice.


Local resolution procedures have been developed by local authorities, the WLGA and the Ombudsman and they are increasingly effective in managing lower level complaints about the conduct of councillors. These procedures have meant a reduced burden on the Ombudsman’s office, but in turn has meant a transfer of workload (but not of resources) to local authorities. The Ombudsman’s latest Annual Report shows that code of conduct complaints were down 22% in 2013-14 at 228 new complaints, of which only 111 related to county or county borough councils. Of the 228 complaints, only 41 were investigated and only 6 investigation reports led to referral to either a standards committee or the Adjudication Panel for Wales.


The Ombudsman was specifically established to investigate complaints about councillors’ conduct as well as complaints about public services. Although the Ombudsman’s own workload and priorities have varied during recent years, his role in independently investigating complaints about councillors’ conduct remains a vital back-stop role which local government would wish to retain, particularly for most serious breaches of the code of conduct. 


It is not possible to meaningfully enforce a code of conduct for councillors without an independent statutorily empowered investigative and adjudicator framework. Such a reform of the Ombudsman’s role and weakening of the code would be a retrograde step at a time when so much controversial reform is proposed within local government.



23. Do you have any views on any aspects of future planned or proposed public sector reforms that would impact on the role of the Ombudsman?


See preamble above.

24. Do you have any other issues or concerns about the current Act and are there any other areas that need reform or updating?


[1] http://www.ombudsman-wales.org.uk/~/media/Files/Documents_en/Model%20Complaints%20Policy%20Final%20PSOW.ashx