Report on Proposals for a Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman Bill
Committee: Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister
Date: Thursday, 27 June 2013
Reference: NIA 120/11-15
Mandate Report Number: Mandate 2011/15 Seventh Report
Together with the Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee relating to the Report, Minutes of Evidence, and Written Submissions
The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is a Statutory Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of the Belfast Agreement, Section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and under Assembly Standing Order 48. The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and has a role in the initiation of legislation.
The Committee has power to:
- Consider and advise on Departmental Budgets and Annual Plans in the context of the overall budget allocation;
- Approve relevant secondary legislation and take the Committee stage of relevant primary legislation;
- Call for persons and papers;
- Initiate inquiries and make reports; and
- Consider and advise on matters brought to the Committee by the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
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The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in this mandate, and the 2007-2011 mandate, has developed policy proposals to combine the offices of the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints with their current powers remit and responsibilities – subject to the proposals set out below and in the main body of this Report.
The proposals would also reform jurisdiction and powers and provide for appointment of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) by Her Majesty on the nomination of the Assembly and for the NIPSO to report to the Assembly and Assembly Committees on a basis to be laid down in Standing Orders.
Westminster legislation is likely to be required to enable the Assembly to confidently legislate on a small number of matters within the proposed Bill. Following consideration of this report the Committee will seek the assistance and consent of the Secretary of State in bringing forward relevant legislation.
The new office would be known as the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman or NIPSO;
Appointment as NIPSO would be for a single, non-renewable, fixed term of seven years;
The mechanics of recruitment and selection of a suitable candidate would be under the auspices of the Assembly Commission;
Formal appointment would be by Her Majesty on the nomination of the Assembly and removal before expiry of the fixed term would reflect the appointment arrangements;
There would be restrictions on appointment and on leaving office aimed at avoiding actual or perceived conflicts of interest;
Temporary vacancies in office would be provided for by appointment of an acting NIPSO;
The NIPSO’s salary would be determined by the Assembly Commission subject to an upper limit;
Existing staff/secondees would have the opportunity to transfer to the NIPSO;
The NIPSO would have a similar relationship to the Assembly as the Comptroller and Auditor General;
Where the current legislation indicates a requirement for approval by or accountability to a NI Department this would transfer to the Assembly or its Committees as provided for in the Assembly’s Standing Orders;
In relation to budget and spending the NIPSO would be accountable to an Assembly Committee as provided for in Standing Orders;
The NIPSO’s remit would include schools, the Assembly Commission, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and further and higher education institutions, in addition to bodies currently within the Assembly Ombudsman/Commissioner for Complaints remit.
The NIPSO’s remit would not include public sector employment issues;
In relation to public procurement the NIPSO’s remit would be extended and complaints regarding professional judgment in social care would be dealt with on the same basis as complaints regarding clinical judgement in health care;
Complaints could be made orally (if reduced to writing and agreed within 20 working days) and the NIPSO would have discretion in relation to accepting different written forms of complaint;
Complaints could be made directly by the aggrieved person, by their Member of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly (MLA) or by the aggrieved person’s representative;
Complaints could also be referred to the NIPSO for determination - by a public body which had sought unsuccessfully to resolve an issue;
The Northern Ireland residency requirement for complainants would be removed;
The time limit for making a complaint would be reduced from 12 months from a complainant’s knowledge of the event complained of to 6 months from the date of the final decision of the public body’s complaints procedure – with public bodies under a duty to sign-post the right of complaint to the NIPSO;
The NIPSO would have discretion to make an investigation report public where it was in the public interest to do so as well as providing copies to the complainant, aggrieved person’s representative, public body and any assisting MLA.
The option for a complainant of applying for a county court order for damages on foot of the NIPSO’s upholding a complaint would be available in respect of all bodies within the NIPSO’s remit, subject to compliance with Article 6 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR);
The NIPSO would be able to request the Attorney General for Northern Ireland to seek a High Court order where a public body is likely to persist in maladministration;
The NIPSO would report to the Assembly and its Committees as provided for in Assembly Standing Orders;
The Secretary of State and Northern Ireland Ministers would have a power to give notice prohibiting disclosure of information where it would be contrary to the public interest or prejudicial to the safety of NI/UK;
Public bodies would be required to disclose relevant legal advice to the NIPSO for the purposes of his or her investigation, subject to compliance with Article 6 ECHR;
The NIPSO would be required to cooperate and share information with other Ombudsmen, Commissioners and Regulators, particularly with a view to avoiding overlap and duplication of effort;
Public bodies under investigation would be required to provide the NIPSO with facilities (such as access to a photocopier);
The NIPSO would have a power of own initiative investigation subject to evidencing the need for this and giving notice to the relevant department and public body;
The Department of Justice wishes to include in the NIPSO Bill provisions which would fill the office of the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Ombudsman (NIJAO) by reference to the person holding office as the NIPSO and the Committee is considering this proposal;
Where matters do not fall within the legislative competence of the Assembly, legislation at Westminster will be sought. Where provisions of the Bill require the consent of the Secretary of State, this will be requested.
The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (‘the Committee’) has agreed to introduce a Bill to reform what is commonly referred to as the office of Northern Ireland Ombudsman.
There are presently two statutory offices:
the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (‘the Assembly Ombudsman’) provided for in the Ombudsman (Northern Ireland) Order 1996; and,
the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints (‘the Commissioner for Complaints’) provided for in the Commissioner for Complaints (Northern Ireland) Order 1996.
The 1996 Orders replaced the corresponding Acts of 1969 which first introduced the ombudsman concept into law in Northern Ireland.
The Committee’s proposed Bill will combine the offices of Assembly Ombudsman and Commissioner for Complaints into a single office to be known as the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (‘the NIPSO’) and, subject to proposals set out below, combining the powers and remit of the current offices. The Bill will also reform jurisdiction and powers and provide for appointment of the NIPSO on the nomination of the Assembly and for the NIPSO to report to the Assembly and Assembly Committees on a basis to be laid down in Standing Orders.
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