Trust is fragile. An ambitious ombudsman reform agenda can help rebuild it

Ombudsman policy should not be kept in a glass box marked “break only in case of emergency”, Richard Blakeway says on Ombuds Day
Putting ombudsman policy in a glass box marked “break only in case of emergency” means opportunities to prevent scandals are lost and blind spots emerge. Photo: Adobe Stock

By Richard Blakeway

12 Oct 2023

Trust is fragile with 35%, according to the Office of National Statistics, trusting the UK government and fewer people trusting even venerated institutions like the NHS.   

This loss of trust is seen daily in the work of ombudsman schemes, where thousands of people come to us with injustices from pensions to banks, energy to education, or care to housing. 

This means that we are vital to building trust. But doing so needs an ambitious ombudsman reform agenda in the next parliament.  

In times of crisis, the option of free, impartial and independent redress is a familiar lever for politicians to pull. Post-war, successive prime ministers have had to respond to scandals from Crichel Down, Deepcut and Grenfell Tower that have directly led to ombudsman schemes being created or bolstered. These schemes have helped tens of thousands of people, resolving disputes in a practical, cost-effective way, and offering valuable lessons for public and commercial bodies. 

But the unintended consequences of sometimes putting ombudsman policy in a glass box marked “break only in case of emergency” means opportunities to prevent scandals are lost, redress blind spots emerge, inconsistent and sometimes outdated powers are created, and a lack of resources undermines some schemes.  

Yet ombudsman schemes offer valuable insights to support policymakers, deliver better services, and ensure the public and consumers are treated fairly. So, how can government deliver modern, effective public and consumer redress which draws on the best in the UK and exemplars overseas? 

"Putting ombudsman policy in a glass box marked 'break only in case of emergency' means opportunities to prevent scandals are lost, blind spots emerge, inconsistent powers are created, and a lack of resources undermines schemes"

Effective reform should contain three priorities: a review of gaps in redress into which some of the most vulnerable people in society are falling, and how best to close them. Next, an ambitious programme of education to raise awareness and improve access to justice. Finally, creating a central point for leading ombudsman policy within government to galvanise action. 

Progress in each of these areas would bring significant benefits for the public. The weakening of a central, coordinated approach in Whitehall to public policy development of redress has led to unequal powers between ombudsman schemes, conflicting approaches to extending redress, and impaired access to redress.  

Moreover, a government-sponsored review of access to justice would address the postcode lottery of rights which means in England the public can complain to an ombudsman about a district council but not a town council, or the absurdity that people can complain to an ombudsman if their train is delayed but not when their flight is cancelled. 

Yet stronger and more consistent access to justice will not have the impact it should without greater awareness amongst the public of their rights. From Windrush to Grenfell, the victims of injustice have struggled to have their voice heard until a scandal, tragedy or major failing occurs, and barriers to access and awareness of redress means the public are not able to exercise their rights as easily as they should be able to.  

It is vital for government to use its convening power to bring together experts to develop a grassroots, long-term approach to public education on people’s rights and access to justice, covering not just the courts and tribunals, but also ombudsman schemes. This happens in countries like Ireland and Canada but is overlooked in the UK. 

Without this approach, policymakers will fail to take advantage of the attributes an ombudsman has to help rebuild public trust and deliver wider reform. These changes should include greater recognition of the ombudsman model to tackle systemic injustice and underperformance as well as individual disputes. After all, an ombudsman is more doctor, diagnosing and remedying, than police offer. 

There will inevitably be a scramble for ideas and priorities over the coming months, from jobs and growth to core services. An ombudsman’s work touches on each, telling policymakers whether something is working on the ground, and providing early warning if it is not.  

The next parliament offers a crucial opportunity to make a difference for people struggling with daily challenges to live their lives, and supporting ombudsman schemes to do their job will help strengthen communities, the economy, and trust. 

Richard Blakeway is chair of the Ombudsman Association. 12 October is Ombuds Day, celebrated internationally on the second Thursday of October each year to raise awareness of the ombudsman sector. 


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