Why we don’t need a separate Human Rights Ombudsperson

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

A few days ago, I gave oral evidence to Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights. They wanted to know if creating a new, separate Human Rights Ombudsperson would improve how people access their rights out of court.

It was a special occasion for me personally, given that Lord Alf Dubs is a member of the Committee and joined in the questioning. He is a hero of mine, who came to the UK alone at the age of 6 on the Kindertransport in 1939. It also gave me an opportunity to engage with David Simmonds MP who had held a meeting a few days ago for Ukrainian refugees in his constituency. This included the two Ukrainians who have now joined our family.

In essence, the Committee listened carefully and sympathetically to PHSO’s view that human rights would best be protected by reforming, integrating and extending the remits of existing public service Ombudsman schemes, not by creating another new Ombuds. This view is shared widely by practitioners and academics such as Richard Kirkham and Robert Thomas, who gave evidence in the following session. 

Disadvantages of creating a new ombudsman scheme

Creating a separate Human Rights Ombuds (whatever it might be named) would be a backward step. It would add to public confusion about where to go to seek redress.

It would create further unhelpful overlaps between the mandates of each scheme and lead to turf wars about which body should be responsible for a complaint which has both a human rights and maladministration/injustice dimension.

In cost terms it would add significantly to operating costs when many of our sister institutions in the UK are suffering severely from insufficient resources.

Protecting human rights through existing schemes

The service we currently provide is an essential pillar in the administrative justice landscape. We provide free, effective dispute resolution that includes human rights issues. This is shown by our work on cases relating to the Windrush scandal, loss of social security benefits, and avoidable deaths and indignities in the NHS.

All this is in line with The Venice Principles which emphasise the need for ombudsman institutions to protect and promote human rights as an integral part of their work.

Of course, as I explained to the Committee, we can do more to highlight human rights breaches where we see them. With that in mind, in our new corporate strategy for 2022-2025 we have set out how we plan to take a more direct approach to monitor, document and call out such flagrant breaches. The strategy will go some way to ensure we can support people who have had their human rights infringed.

Pushing for Ombudsman reform

However, to protect human and fundamental rights even more effectively the best way forward is to deliver wholesale reform and integration of the current ombuds landscape. The Committee were sympathetic on this point.

First, we need a new Public Service Ombudsman with jurisdiction over local public services in England and UK Government departments. This should include investigating breaches of human rights by public bodies. Without this reform, the UK is out of step with international standards of good practice as set out in the Venice Principles.

Second, Parliament should abolish the MP filter so that people can complain directly to the Ombudsman and not have to approach their MP first. As we saw in the Windrush cases, the MP filter puts at risk some people's ability to seek remedy for human rights violations because they are not confident their MP will be sympathetic.

Third, as with most other national schemes of countries who are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, we need own-initiative powers to allow PHSO to investigate possible systemic human rights breaches proactively. Those suffering human rights abuses are the least likely to complain to us and having this power would make us more directly accessible.

I will continue to push for reform. Delivering it is pivotal in protecting the rights of every individual and to delivering a world leading Ombuds service.

Read our written submission to the Human Rights Ombudsperson inquiry.