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Ombudsman service 'fair but needs one boss'

By Vivienne Russell | 30 April 2013

The Local Government Ombudsman service is independent and accountable but should be restructured to be led by a chief ombudsman, an external examination has concluded.

The evaluation, published yesterday, is the first following a recommendation from the Commons communities and local government select committee last year. MPs on the committee called for the annual independendent assessments  following concerns about the way the body handled cases.

Yesterday's report found that the ombudsman met the key tests of independence, fairness, effectiveness, openness and accountability.

However, it made a number of recommendations about how the LGO could develop further. These included permanently restructuring the organisation so it is led by a chief ombudsman, which would help ensure decisions were consistent. Currently, two or three ombudsmen, working out of separate offices, share responsibilities between them.

Three, independent non-executive members should also be appointed to strengthen corporate governance by bringing in some external scrutiny, the report said.

It noted that some of these governance changes will require amending the Local Government Act 1974.

The LGO should also do more to assure the public of its independence. Recommended actions include publishing its conflict of interest policy online and declaring the number of staff who have previously been employed by a local authority.

Local government ombudsman Jane Martin welcomed the report. She said: ‘It gives the public confidence that the service we provide ensures access to redress when public services let them down.

‘We also welcome the recommendations made in the report. We are actively considering how we will achieve these and will report our progress to the communities and local government select committee.’

CLG committee chair Clive Betts said: ‘I applaud the Local Government Ombudsman for acting on my committee’s recommendation and commissioning this independent report.

‘The reviewers appear to have produced a thorough and comprehensive piece of work – I thank them for their efforts.’

He added that the report raised a number of issues for consideration by government as well as the LGO itself. The committee will also be revisiting the issue later in the year.

The external evaluation was carried out by Richard Thomas, chair of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council, Jim Martin, the Scottish public services ombudsman, and Dr Richard Kirkham of the University of Sheffield, who is an expert on the ombudsman institution.

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