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Jane Martin: Good public services are essential for social justice

Jane Martin
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As local government ombudsman for the past seven years, I have seen perhaps the greatest changes to the organisation in our 40-plus-year history.

It has been an exciting time, and we have seen a great shift in the way we work, with some housing cases moving to the Housing Ombudsman Service and the creation of our new jurisdiction over registerable independent care providers.

The Draft Bill for Ombudsman reform published on 5 December, which we have been supporting, should bring opportunities for us to offer an even better service, especially for complex cases relating to integrated services, such as health and social care.

Despite these changes, the core purpose of the ombudsman has stayed and will stay the same. Our role is to put things right for people when public authorities and service providers get them wrong. It is a free service and we achieve compliance with nearly every one of our recommendations for remedy.

But even with all our best efforts, local authorities are still making the same mistakes. The problems we see have not changed and good public administration is as important as it has ever been, particularly in times of austerity when councils are under increasing pressure to deliver against reduced budgets.

Statutory guidance and regulatory frameworks are intended to protect people, some of whom are in very vulnerable circumstances, by ensuring due diligence in the decisions made by public authorities. Such guidance also sets the parameters of what the public should expect and the extent of their rights and responsibilities.

As an impartial ombudsman service, we are also concerned that local complaint handling should work well. We want complaints to be responded to fairly and without delay. This should be a matter of putting things right wherever possible and improving services, not only for the person affected, but for others too: it is a false economy for councils to minimise the effort put into dealing with complaints.

While it is difficult to predict how local government will evolve, moves towards creating combined authorities could add more layers and greater confusion for people who want to raise a complaint. At a time when public feedback on new service delivery models is essential to their development, councils need to work out how best to enable the people who use their services can make their voices heard. To help, we have developed guidance which could make this much easier. We recommend making sure all commissioning and provider bodies make it clear how to raise a complaint and have accessible processes in place to respond.

Issues of public trust and confidence never go away. The office of the ombudsman has worked constructively with councils for more than 40 years. It is not too much to say that good public administration is essential for social justice. Local authorities must ensure fair treatment for all.

Jane Martin, outgoing local government ombudsman

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