HC Deb 03 December 1986 vol 106 cc686-8W
Mr. Wood

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has proposals for legislation in the current session in relation to the powers of the local ombudsman.

Mr. Chope

Yes. Provisions relating to the Commissions for Local Administration in England and Wales (the "Local Ombudsmen") will be included in the Local Government Bill. In most cases these will give effect to proposals for change made over a period of time by the commissioners themselves. These proposals were in some instances first agreed by the previous Government. A major provision will be to extend the local ombudsman's jurisdiction to certain functions of new town bodies and urban development corporations. The Government's undertaking to make this change was contained in their response to recommendations by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Cmnd. 9563, July 1985).

The provisions will amend part III of the Local Government Act 1974, which relates to the local ombudsmen in England and Wales, as follows:

  1. 1. The Commissions for Local Administration (CLASs) are required annually to review the powers governing their operations. An amendment will make this requirement a triennial one (section 23(12)).
  2. 2. The CLAs are required to produce a general annual report of their activities, to be published by the representative body (of local and water authorities). An amendment will require the commissions to publish their annual reports themselves (section 24(6)).
  3. 3. An amendment will extend the local ombudsman's jurisdiction to the housing functions of the Commission for new Towns and of new town development corporations; and to the town and country planning functions of urban development corporations (section 25(1)).
  4. 4. Complaints to the local ombudsman are time-limited. They must in the first instance have been made to a member of the authority complained against within a year of the alleged injustice. The local ombudsman may override this restriction if he considers there are special circumstances. An amendment will provide the ombudsman with wider discretion to accept compliants made "out of time". (section 26(4)).
  5. 5. When the local ombudsman produces a report of an investigation into an alleged injustice he must submit a copy to the authority complained against. The authority is required to make the report available for public inspection; and permit copies to be taken. An amendment will require authorities to supply copies of reports at reasonable cost to any person requesting them (section 30(4)).
  6. 6. When local authorities receive a report of an investigation as described above, they must advertise its availability for inspection within a week. This often presents practical difficulties. An amendment will extend the period for advertising to two weeks (section 30(5)).
  7. 7. Reports by the local ombudsman which find injustice as a result of maladministration must be considered by the authority concerned. If it fails to provide the remedy proposed, the ombudsman may make a further report; but the authority is not required to consider any such further report. An amendment will require that authorities should consider all reports by the local ombudsman (section 31(2)).
  8. 8. For the purposes of the law of defamation, communications between a member of an authority and the local ombudsman are absolutely privileged. An amendment will extend such privilege to officers of the authority (section 32(1)).
  9. 9. The local ombudsman may delegate to his staff any function other than that of making a report. An amendment will give the ombudsman the discretion to delegate report making. (Schedule 4, paragraph 4(5)).

Proposals for more fundamental changes in the local ombudsman's powers than those described above were included in the recent report of the Widdicombe committee on the conduct of local government business. It is, however, premature to consider legislation in relation to any of those more radical proposals. The Government have invited comments on the Widdicombe report by the end of the year, and will then consider the recommendations as a whole, consulting further as necessary. In the meantime, the items listed above, which were not subject to proposals by Widdicombe, will be implemented as recommended by the commissioners and accepted by the Government.