Public Services Ombudsperson

 

Introduction

At their February States meeting, deputies debated whether to create a Public Services Ombudsperson (PSO). P&R recommended NOT to create a PSO at this time because of the cost. Policy letter.

At the end of the debate, the States voted not to create an Ombudsperson but, thanks to an amendment from Deputy Soulsby, that decision will be reviewed in 2026.

A PSO is similar to the Commissioner for Standards, except that they are the final stage for complaints about public services, rather than code of conduct complaints about deputies.

For example, you might have a problem with the way Education has decided which school your child goes to. You make a complaint, using Education’s internal complaints process, but you aren’t happy with the outcome and how it was arrived at. The Ombudsperson would be someone you could appeal to, someone independent of the Education Committee.

What happens to complaints now?

Currently, if you have exhausted a Committee’s internal complaints process and there is no other external appeals mechanism open to you, you can apply to have your case reviewed by an Administrative Review Board (ARB). ARB webpage.

But your case will first be reviewed by three members of the Complaints Panel to see if it meets the criteria for an ARB.  The Complaints Panel is a group of trained members of the public. Women in Public Life advertises Complaints Panel vacancies from time to time. Most cases are rejected by the Complaints Panel after investigation – a case going to an ARB hearing is rare.

However, the policy letter states that the ARB/Complaints Panel system is ‘overly complex and time consuming, unsatisfactory in redressing perceived injustice, and lacking in independence’.

Why did P&R recommend not to have an Ombudsperson?

Having an PSO wasn’t P&R’s idea originally. The impetus to investigate creating one came from a successful Soulsby/Burford amendment in 2022. The policy letter that the States debated was written before the membership of P&R changed at the end of last year, but the current P&R carried it forward.

Jersey is in the process of creating its own PSO and P&R’s policy letter considered whether to join forces with them to create a Channel Islands PSO. But there was an understandable reluctance as Jersey is intending to recruit a full-time Ombudsperson with a salary of £100-125k and two supporting officers at a total cost of £400k a year. Guernsey’s share would be £170k. Initially, Jersey’s PSO would not consider Health cases as these are the most complex so those costs could rise.

If Guernsey had its own PSO, independent of Jersey, the salary would be less but it wouldn’t be split across two islands and the PSO would need their own office space. So P&R estimated that the cost of a Guernsey PSO will be £215k a year.

P&R said Guernsey can’t afford either £170k or £215k at the current time, so we should stick with the current ARB system.

Why did P&R amend its own policy letter?

Deputies Soulsby and Gollop lodged a ‘technical’ amendment, rewriting the propositions (the items that deputies actually vote on). Previously there was just one proposition to not have an Ombudsperson in the current financial climate, kicking the idea into the long grass for an indefinite period. The amendment gave deputies the opportunity to choose whether to have a joint system with Jersey, a Guernsey-only service or to revisit the issue in 2026. Amendment 1 was carried by 33-4, thereby creating proposition 4 (revisit in 2026) which was carried by 27-9 votes.

Other amendments

Deputies St Pier and Soulsby lodged a late amendment on the day before the debate, proposing adding further propositions. These propositions related to a 2020 confidential review of “arm-length bodies” (all of Guernsey’s tribunals, panels, commissions etc) that was chaired by Peter Harwood. The 29 recommendations of that review have never been addressed by the States. One of them is not to proceed with an Ombudsperson but to keep a watching brief on developments in other jurisdictions. Deputy St Pier wanted P&R to report back by March 2025 with an implementation plan in response to the arms-length body report. The confidential report was appended to the amendment. Amendment 2 was carried by 33-4 thereby creating propositions 4, 5 and 6 which were all carried 27-9.

During the course of debate, Deputies St Pier and Burford lodged Amendment 3, effectively adding a new proposition to amendment 1 which directed P&R to return to the States by November 2024 with additional up-to-date and revised information on the likely costs of a Guernsey Ombudsperson. This amendment arose from references in the debate to the existing Isle Of Man Tynwald Ombudsperson system which had not been referenced in the policy letter but was said to cost £35,000 a year on a part-time basis. This amendment was carried 23-14 but the new proposition that it created was narrowly defeated in the final vote 18-18.