LGO candidate backs calls for ‘once-in-a-generation’ single Ombudsman

The favoured candidate to be the next Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) said the organisation should be replaced with a single Public Services Ombudsman in a hearing before a Parliamentary committee today.

Michael King, chief executive and accounting officer for the LGO, is the government’s preferred candidate to replace Dr Jane Martin as LGO when she retires.

At a pre-appointment hearing with the Communities and Local Government Committee (CLGC) this morning, King said there could be potential under his tenure for the LGO to merge with the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman (PHSO).

The former PHSO, Dame Julie Mellor, had also said before resigning in July that there should be a single Ombudsman for both organisations.

“We’re on the brink, potentially, of a significant change in the Ombudsman landscape in this country,” King said.

“There’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to reform and improve the way we deliver our service. I think the landscape in this country is much too complex and I think if we can create a single Ombudsman that will aid public understanding and access to redress.”

However, he added any new Public Services Ombudsman should not be a “London-centric, Whitehall, Westminster body”.

“What we create has to have sufficient understanding of the diverse sectors within its reach to make sure that it doesn’t lose touch,” King said. “It has to be a Public Service Ombudsman that respects local democracy and local delivery as well as central government parliamentary issues.”

King also said that, as Ombudsman, he would want to stress the importance for local authorities of dealing with complaints.

When asked if the current spending cuts facing councils were leading to an increase in complaints, King said there was not an overall increase, but there were “more and more” complaints about reductions in services and complaints indicating “serious problems” with social care.

An LGO survey also showed that 55% of local authorities had either cut their complaints handling team or given them more work to deal with.

 King said this was a “false economy” that was putting local authority complaints services under greater pressure “than ever before”.

He said that under his leadership, the LGO “would be advocating to local government that actually, the sensible thing to do at a time of tightening budgets is invest in good complaint handling” – because it could provide feedback on where the problems with services are and boost public confidence in the organisation.

As the new combined authorities are set up, King said the LGO would tell them to “make sure they’re thinking about citizen redress and complaint handling from the start”, and that it was already in talks with the West Midlands Combined Authority about this.

King added that he was keen to avoid the impression that the LGO was too close to the councils it investigates, arguing he had helped ensure it pushed back against councils in areas such as unsuitable housing for vulnerable individuals and avoided using the same language as councils in its communications with the public.

Since a CLGC report found serious problems with the Ombudsman in 2012, the LGO has cut its costs by 37% and cut 28% of its staff. At the same time, it increased key measures of quality from 54% to 92%, increased the average number of cases each investigator deals with from 101 to 138, and dealt with 80% of cases within the prescribed time limits.

King noted that he wanted to see more changes to services, including a single online portal members of the public can use to process complaints. But he suggested that any reforms might be harder to deliver because of the funding constraints on the LGO.

“One of the challenges is how we sustain that performance when we’re operating at the margins of what is sustainable and approvable,” he concluded.

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