Wales leads Ombudsman field

Elin Royles reports on a seminar examining the role of Commissioners across the UK and Ireland

A seminar on Commissioners and Ombudsmen held just over a week ago in Cardiff Bay examined their powers and public policy making role across the UK and Ireland. Organised by academics at Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Welsh Politics and Centre for Welsh Legal Affairs, the seminar drew together senior level practitioners and academics from Wales and beyond.

This was a timely debate as current Welsh developments include a new Commissioner under the Future Generations Bill. Moreover, last month the Welsh Government announced a review of the role and functions of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales. Also underway is the Westminster Parliament’s review of the Parliament Ombudsman Service.

In many ways Wales was deemed an exemplar in the provision. On the other hand, at the UK level it was characterised as a patchwork of Commissioners and Ombudsmen facing challenges of overlaps and holes in provision. This was compounded by a 19th Century mindset on constitutional issues. The challenges are being exacerbated by the repercussions for UK Commissioners and Ombudsmen of the UK coalition government’s reforms and spending cuts.

So what’s exemplary about Wales? We’re all aware of our ‘first only’ records in this area. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales was established as the first of the current four UK Children’s Commissioners, created by the first Wales-only Act in 2001. Wales’ Older People’s Commissioner was, as far as we know, the first in the world.

Peter Tyndall, previously Public Services Ombudsman for Wales is now Ombudsman and Information Commissioner in the Republic of Ireland. He stressed how post-devolution Wales has successfully merged different ombudsmen office into a single Public Services Ombudsman that, influenced by Scotland’s example, resulted in ‘cutting edge’ Ombudsman legislation. This office has been highlighted for others to follow as it fully complied with the requirements of the ombudsman revalidation scheme.

Amongst the other examples of Welsh best practice across Commissioners and Ombudsmen, other speakers drew attention to their robust set of powers, capacity to publicise their work, and a common portal to access Commissioners and Ombudsmen. The informal collaboration between them works to exchange experiences, discuss similarities and avoid duplication.  Wales’ Commissioners and Ombudsmen have benefited from the timing of their establishment as they reflect similar constitutional innovation around the world from the end of the 1990s onwards.

Nevertheless, the quest for greater accountability and capacity to better safeguard and protect the rights of Welsh citizens and improve public services remains a challenge. A critical issue is the difference not only between Commissioners and Ombudsmen but also amongst Commissioners as regards powers and constitutional arrangements. The independence of those Commissioners that are appointed and funded by the Welsh Government is an issue. A view voiced at the seminar, including by Presiding Officer Rosemary Butler, is that the Commissioners should be appointed by, and be accountable to, the National Assembly for Wales. This seemed to be a view shared by an increasing amount of people.

The question ‘who guards the guardians’ raised the potential for more systematic review of these offices. Whilst their independence is valued, there is no clear consensus on these governance issues. In addition, attention was drawn to contrasts in the length of appointment, arrangements whereby appointments are renewed and the merits and disadvantages of the different arrangements. One area where Wales reflects the UK model on Ombudsmen in contrast to other international cases is a lack of own initiative powers. These were deemed as having the potential to make Ombudsmen more proactive and powerful.

Finally, the jagged edges of devolution were ever-present and a number of contributors advocated streamlining Commissioner and Ombudsmen’s functions to encompass both devolved and non-devolved matters within Wales. This would fill gaps in their jurisdiction and be a step that would bring benefits for citizen in Wales.

The ‘voice of the voiceless’ or ‘professional irritants’ – alternative descriptions of the Commissioners and Ombudsmen – are certainly valued in Wales. As we move forward, the seminar findings indicated a challenge in bringing legislation up to date and suggested the merits of greater consistency across Commissioner governance arrangements.

Developments surrounding the Commissioner for Sustainable Futures and the Children’s Commissioner for Wales will be closely watched. A number of the seminar’s key themes complemented the Part Two Silk Report though it’s not entirely clear that these issues were raised with the Silk Commission. If governance arrangements are to better serve the people of Wales, the issue of the jagged edges and extending the Commissioner’s jurisdiction could be placed high on the agenda of the proposed ‘Welsh Intergovernmental Committee’.

Certainly, the governance arrangements and role of Commissioners and Ombudsmen in Wales deserves further investigation, including drawing more detailed comparisons with cases across the UK and beyond. It is only by doing so that we will better understand the dynamics and the validity of one of the seminar’s main conclusions: that Commissioners and Ombudsmen are a key success story of devolution to Wales. It has many examples of good practice to be shared with other parts of the UK and beyond.

Elin Royles is a Lecturer at the Institute of Welsh Politics, Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University.

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