The report, the result of an inquiry into the ombudsman conducted by the Assembly’s Finance Committee, includes a recommendation that the ombudsman should have the power to initiate an investigation without first having received a complaint on the issue. This power, known as own-initiative power, is one that most public services ombudsmen throughout Europe have, including the Ombudsman for Ireland. Legislation to introduce the power for the Northern Ireland Ombudsman is currently before the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Evidence presented to the Committee indicated that the ombudsman’s current role is working effectively and the 2005 Act establishing the PSOW is generally considered to be a model piece of ombudsman legislation.
In addition to recommending that the ombudsman should have own-initiative powers, the Committee recommended that the ombudsman’s office should have a statutory complaints role. This would involve producing a model complaints procedure for public authorities in Wales, requiring authorities to consult with stakeholders, and requiring public bodies to collect and analyse data on complaints.
Both the previous ombudsman, Peter Tyndall and the current ombudsman, Nick Bennett, have called for increased powers for the PSOW. Among their key concerns is to ensure there is access to independent redress for all public services, even when these services have been provided by the private sector, (such as the private healthcare sector).
In terms of the PSOW’s jurisdiction over health complaints, the report notes that patients using services provided in Private Patient Units have no ability to complain to any external body about their treatment – an anomaly the Committee recommends that the Welsh Government and the Health Inspectorate Wales work together to address. The Committee also recommends that the ombudsman’s jurisdiction should be extended to enable him/her to investigate the whole complaint when a combination of treatment has been received by public and private healthcare providers and when that treatment has been initiated in the NHS.
Other areas considered, including removing the statutory bar to accepting complaints that can be considered by the courts, the report concluded that ‘changes should not be made in relation to the statutory bar, stay provisions and referral of a point of law at this time. However, the Committee recommends the Welsh Government explore these issues with the UK Government as part of future devolution discussions.