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Petitions calling for review of Scottish Public Services Ombudsman over complaints remit sent to Holyrood’s Local Government Committee

25 Nov

Petitions CommitteeHolyrood’s Local Government and Communities Committee to receive multiple petitions involving complaints about SPSO. EIGHT PETITIONS calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to commission an independent review of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman to make it more accountable which were heard earlier this week by Holyroods Public Petitions Committee, and featured a second attendance by Housing & Communities Minister Alex Neil in support of the petitioners, are now to be referred to the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government & Communities Committee.

The petitions, Petition PE1342, Petition PE1343, Petition PE1344, Petition PE1345, Petition PE1346, Petition PE1347, Petition PE1348, & Petition PE1349 all “call on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to commission an independent review of the SPSO to make it more accountable for its performance, including the extent to which its investigations are fair and robust, and to widen its remit, so that it can enforce recommendations that it makes following investigations of the actions of public bodies.”

I reported on the initial hearing of the multiple petitions calling for a review of the SPSO in coverage during September, here : Holyrood considers nine petitions against Scottish Public Services Ombudsman as Housing Minister dubbed ‘out of touch’ over accusations

Holyrood’s Petitions Committee referred SPSO petitions to Local Government & Communities Committee (Click images below to view video)

Since the initial hearing of the petitions during September, the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament’s Corporate Body & the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman himself, Mr Jim Martin have filed written responses to all of the petitions, available to download here : PE1342/A: Scottish Public Services Ombudsman letter of 1 October 2010 (23KB pdf), here : PE1342/B: Scottish Government letter of 5 October 2010 (31KB pdf) & here : PE1342/C: Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body letter of 8 October 2010 (144KB pdf)

Jim Martin, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman said : “It is for the Parliament to determine to whom and how the SPSO should be accountable for its performance. In my 2009-10 annual report, I invite the Parliament to consider ways of strengthening the SPSO’s relationship with, and the accountability of the office to, the Parliament.”

Mr Martin went onto say : “I welcome external scrutiny. This office has adopted many non-statutory measures to ensure greater accountability for our performance.”

In commenting directly on the petitions before the Parliament, Mr Martin went onto say : “So it is to the handful of cases where a body refuses to comply that the petitioners’ question is addressed. My strategy to date has been to contact the relevant Chief Executive and bring about a conclusion I am satisfied with by the art of persuasion or the threat of publicity. In any case where this has not brought about the desired outcome, my option is to use the ‘special report’ mechanism in the SPSO Act. This allows me to ask the Parliament to take steps to enforce a recommendation. Since the SPSO was set up in 2002, we have not laid such a report, but I am now close to doing so.”

Concluding his letter to the Petitions Committee, Mr Martin said : “In conclusion, it is my strong view that commitment from the top and culture change, rather than technical legal compliance, are the real lever here. A very few bodies can be reluctant to admit fault and enforcement will not necessarily change their view – it might make them tick the boxes, but will not bring about the wider aim of encouraging bodies to learn from their mistakes and to see complaints as valuable tools to drive improvement. I believe that the work that my office is doing to lead the development of standardised complaints handling processes and to establish principles of good complaints handling (which we will bring to the Parliament for approval later this year) will go some way to bringing about the desired culture change.”

The response from the Scottish Government to the petitions claimed public bodies within the jurisdiction of the SPSO would be less than willing to work with the SPSO if enforcement powers were given to Mr Martin’s Office.

The letter from Scottish Government stated : “Having taken evidence from stakeholders, including Government and the SPSO, in 2009 the RSSB (Review of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body) Committee concluded that it would be more appropriate for Government to legislate for improved complaints handling. The Scottish Government agreed the approach proposed by RSSB Committee in November2009 and the recommended provisions were proposed as amendments at Stage 2 of the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Bill. The Bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament on 25March 2010 and the Act received Royal Assent on 28 April 2010.”

“To give the SPSO enforcement powers would alter the function of the Ombudsman (from Adjudicator to Enforcer). This would also be likely to impact negatively upon the willingness of bodies within jurisdiction to work with the SPSO on complaints. Traditionally, bodies are normally quick to take remedial action where the SPSO sees fit for them to do so.”

The Scottish Parliament’s Corporate body took a similarly negative view, with its reply to the Petitions Committee, from the Parliament’s Chief Executive, Paul Grice, saying : “As the SPSO has procedures in place for dealing with complaints from members of the public who are dissatisfied, including publishing statistics on the number of complaints received and the outcome, we can see no reason to establish public complaints channels. In addition, given the SPSO’s independence, it would not be appropriate for the Parliament to have a role in the SPSO’s complaints processes.”

Mr Grice went onto say : “The SPSO in the exercise of his functions is not subject ot the direction or control of any member of the Parliament, any member of the Scottish Executive or the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. This is to safeguard the SPSO’s independence.”

”On the SPSO’s performance, the SPCB has noted that since the SPSO introduced new internal practices and procedures the number of outstanding complaints has fallen significantly and that the average turnaround time for determining complaints has also dropped substantially.”

Mr Grice ended by saying it was for the Scottish Government to propose legislation changes for altering the SPSO’s remit.

In the case of Petition PE1342, the petitioners responded to the written submissions by Mr Martin, Mr Grice & the Scottish Government, telling the Petition’s Committee in an email : “Having read the reports of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, Scottish Parliament Corporate Body and Scottish Government, it appears that nobody, Jim Martin included,is opposed to the widening of the Ombudsman’s powers. We feel Parliament must improve the Ombudsman’s powers to enforce findings and also they must make clearer definitions of topics on which SPSO can comment.”

The petitioners continued : “One such is “malpractice”, for which the SPSO’s office provided a number of possible definitions, but could not provide definitive and practical clarification of the criteria which would be applied and to what degree malpractice might occur before SPSO would be obliged to comment.”

The petitioners ended their email stating : “It would also be very useful if the Parliament could enforce time limits on SPSP for the completion of complaint investigations. This should allow for extensions in cases of exceptional complexity or where new evidence emerges, but these would be the exception rather than the rule and would have to have the specific approval of Parliament or its appointed committee.”

An additional petition involving the SPSO, Petition PE1341, filed by Dr R A Rahman, calling “on the Scottish Parliament to conduct an annual audit of the public expenditure on the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) and establish public complaint channels to examine the public dissatisfaction at the SPSO in managing complaints raised by members of the public.” was, according to the Parliament’s website “closed under Rule 15.7 of Standing Orders on the grounds that the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman makes an annual budget application to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body which is considered annually by the Finance Committee and the Scottish Government, also that regular financial performance information is supplied by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body.

The decision to close Petition PE1341 went onto state : “Further, Audit Scotland has made it clear that the external auditors perform an annual audit of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman in accordance with the code of audit practice. Audit Scotland may produce a further report on the audit but, to date, ‘appointed auditors have produced unqualified opinions of the annual accounts of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and the Auditor General has not produced any reports’.”

Further developments will be reported, given this is a regulation issue involving public services.

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