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Ombudsman service panned by MPs

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MPs have delivered a scathing assessment of the Local Government Ombudsman service (LGO), saying it must conduct its own activities “with credible effectiveness” before it can criticise others.

In a report published on Tuesday, the communities and local government select committee called on the ombudsman to “raise its game significantly”, claiming the service was “taking far too long to determine some cases”.

The committee also called on ministers to explain how they will monitor the implementation of a reorganisation of the service. Communities secretary Eric Pickles has already acted to instruct the appointment of a chief operating officer.

In response, the LGO – which believes that many areas of improvement had already been identified internally – said its time standards for handling complaints compared well with other ombudsman schemes and that more than half of cases (55%) had been decided within 13 weeks

Dr Jane Martin, ombudsman and chair, said: “We are acutely aware that this is an essential frontline service and welcome the scrutiny of the Committee to make sure that we are delivering it as efficiently as possible without compromising on quality. We will be responding in detail to the Committee’s report over the coming weeks and hope it will be evident, when we have had the opportunity publish our response, that many of the recommendations have already been taken on board.”

As reported by LGC in May, Dr Martin admitted to the committee that the length of time taken to resolve some complaints - in some cases up to a year – “probably amounted to maladministration”.

Committee chair Clive Betts (Lab) said this admission “must raise questions about the LGO’s authority and credibility”.

The committee’s report said: “An organisation whose primary job is investigating and determining whether maladministration by others has taken place, must itself take care to avoid maladministration. If it does not, it will undermine its own role and credibility. We urge the commission to review its current administrative arrangements… to ensure that the delay in determining cases, which amounts to maladministration, ceases immediately.”

The LGO has seen its funding cut by a third, which prompted it to commission a strategic business review of the organisation. The review concluded that the potential savings offered by moving the service from London to Coventry would have a damaging effect on the service and instead recommended bringing the whole service together onto one site in London along with a reduction in the number of staff. It recommended that the number of ombudsmen be cut from three to two following the retirement of Sir Anthony Redmond. While this has happened, the government has not yet given the go-ahead to authorise the recruitment of a chief operating officer.

The committee criticised the LGO for not publishing the findings of the review in full.

“First and foremost, the LGO must implement the changes identified by the recent strategic business review, so that it can live within its means while providing  the service to the public that is required by the legislation and expected by the taxpayer,” Mr Betts said. “The LGO management’s rationale for not publishing the 2011 strategic business review in full was ‘unconvincing’ and suggests there may be insufficient appetite for change within the LGO.”

The committee’s report also called for ministers to update the governance arrangements between the Department for Communities & Local Government and the LGO so that the latter has “a clear and comprehensive understanding of its relationship with, and responsibilities to” the department.

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