One of the less well-remarked upon changes in the Localism Act 2010 was a set of radical changes to the role of the Housing Ombudsman (the current incumbent being the lovely Mike Biles). In short, the HO takes over jurisdiction for local authority housing complaints; there is a filter mechanism before the HO can accept a complaint (it has to be referred by a Designated person: MP, Councillor, Tenants Panel). The former is to be welcomed – on one view, the HO now offers a far better, more modern, proactive service than the Local Government Ombudsman in our entrepreneurialised housing system; the latter is to be absolutely deprecated as being not just against the spirit of administrative justice but also as a mechanism for cost-saving in the face of proper redress of grievance/s. Whatever you think about ombudspersons – and a range of views are expressed – there is no doubt that they have consistently exposed various maladministrations across the housing sphere, and they don’t hold back; in addition, their purpose (unlike courts) is to make things better for future “customers” so that there may well be an impact on service delivery from a single instance of maladministration (and not just in that organisation).
Anyway, the question for the HO is how to manage these new jurisdictions and restrictions. A consultation document is available on their main web page for the new scheme (which must be approved by the Secretary of State) – responses due by 15.12.2012 to email@example.com). In truth, that document is a bit dull and does not really get to the heart of the matter. However, there is a further linked document which provides a little more information about how the HO sees the service developing. In particular, for example, while the HO has no jurisdiction over these designated persons, it is clear that the relationship between them and the HO is crucial; and this document carefully sets out the HOs stall on that relationship:
We do not have any jurisdiction over designated persons, their decisions or processes. We will feed back on referrals from designated persons to enable good practice in complaints handling. We will not comment on the merits of designated persons’ decisions but our challenge will be to support the improvement of process and approach.
It will be particularly interesting to see how that relationship develops; I would have liked to have seen the HO adopt a far tougher stance, particularly as regards tenants’ panels, which are something of an unknown in a disputing context. The other major change, it seems to me, is that the HO will make its judgments more sensitive to include a specific judgment about lower level maladministration. The rest of it is the usual ombudsperson fare – the importance of local resolution of complaints, focus on outcomes etc.
I’d be very interested in anybody who has information about Tenant’s Panels (who they are/how they’re appointed/expectations etc), given their pivotal role in the scheme. There’s an interesting research project there …