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Ombudsperson system needs greater human rights focus but dedicated Human Rights Ombudsperson not needed – report finds

Creating a dedicated human rights ombudsperson could risk creating overlap with the functions of existing bodies, a Joint Committee on Human Rights report has found. Human rights are already considered as part of the work of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) and the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO), and creating a new additional role risks creating confusion. The findings come in a report published today by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

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The Committee calls for a new focus to enhance the current human rights framework within the existing ombudsperson system. The PHSO and LGSCO should ensure that human rights standards and principles are embedded in their work, and referenced in their decisions. More work should also be done to improve awareness of their role, particularly with hard to reach groups who may be at greater risk of their human rights being infringed by public bodies. 

Ombudspersons would be better able to identify systemic human rights failings in public bodies if they were empowered to launch investigations on their own initiative, the report finds. Public services ombudspersons in Wales and Northern Ireland currently have these powers, but the LGSCO and PHSO do not. 

The Government should consider changing the legislation setting out the role and remit of the PHSO And LGSCO in order to provide a clearer mandate for them to examine human rights issues. It should also review the current requirement for complaints to be approved by an individual MP, allowing people to bring their complaint directly. This will need to be balanced with the importance of maintaining the link between constituents and their MPs. 

The Joint Committee further calls on the Government to revisit proposals to create a single Public Service Ombudsman for England, originally set out in its 2016 draft bill. A simplified ombudsperson system would make it easier for individuals to know where to make a complaint. 

Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joanna Cherry KC MP said: 

“Human rights are universal, and while the courts play the central role in enforcing these rights it is important that we look at the broader context in which human rights are protected. A key facet of this are those ombuds who are there to examine complaints made against public bodies. 

“While we believe that a dedicated human rights ombud is not needed, that is not to say human rights protections in the existing ombuds framework do not need to be enhanced. There should be a renewed effort to make sure that human rights considerations are a central part of their inquiries and decision making. 

“It must also be simple and straightforward to raise a complaint. Raising awareness will be key here but the Government will also need to examine if there are unnecessary blocks that prevent people from doing so in the current system.”

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