Monday, 11 March 2013

How the Ombudsman Operates?

Now this is a question which I am sure is a mystery to most people myself included up to a few weeks ago. Suffice to say that this 'mystery' suits the majority of public authorities in Wales who are never keen to have their 'dirty washing displayed in public.' The law surrounding how the Ombudsman should operate is the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Act 2005.

Section 16 and Section 21 of this Act states the two kinds of reports that the Ombudsman produces, Section 16 reports are 'public interest reports' where the authority concerned is required to publicize such reports because they raise significant issues of public concern and interest. The second type of report is the Section 21 reports which are far more common but far less visible because these reports are not public interest reports, so the only way to get a copy of this report is if the offending public authority gives you one (highly unlikely!) or if the complainant releases a copy (more likely!).

The Ombudsman will issue a Section 21 report rather than a Section 16 report if the following applies:

  • That the aggrieved person has not suffered injustice or hardship
  • The Ombudsman is satisfied that the public interest does not require a Section 16 report to apply.
On the other hand if the aggrieved person HAS suffered an injustice or hardship the public authority can still hide behind the anonymity of Section 21 reports by agreeing to implement any recommendations the Ombudsman makes within an agreed timescale.

Needless to say that the vast majority of Ombudsman Report in Wales are Section 21 reports never to be publicly seen or in most cases scrutinised by elected members. Wrexham CBC have been subject to 18 Ombudsman Reports in 3 years. One of those was a Section 16 Public Interest report and the others Section 21 reports.

An interesting question to the Ombudsman would be, "How many reports started out as Section 16 Public Interest Reports but were downgraded to Section 21 reports at the request of the Public Authorities concerned?"

I have evidence of at least one report where the Ombudsman has downgraded the report from his original intention. He says in the letter:
" Please note that, as the investigation has raised matters of public interest, the Ombudsman intends to issues the final report under the provisions of S16..."
In a further letter on the same report the Ombudsman states:
"Following the meeting the Ombudsman is inclined to the view that it is appropriate to issue the report under Section 21...; not Section 16 as previously indicated."
I very much hope that this helps and encourages people to ask in-depth questions about the different Ombudsman Reports in their respective public authority areas. The only thing we can be sure of is that there are many examples of poor service and bad practice that is being hidden away from public scrutiny.


MH said...

If the complainant gets a copy of any Section 21 report, would it be possible to set up some sort of public awareness campaign encouraging them (if they so wished, and particularly if they were disgruntled by the decision to downgrade) to put their copy into the public domain, for example on a website set up for that purpose?

Names and personal information could be redacted.

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

Councillors in Wrecsam have agreed that ALL Section 21 reports are summarised and scrutnised at our Performance Scrutiny Committee.