Jersey public-sector ombudsman plan could be abandoned

Chief Minister Lyndon Farnham in the Royal Square. Picture: James Jeune (38153889)

PLANS to create a public-sector ombudsman – agreed in the States six years ago – could be abandoned.

In the latest States Complaints Panel annual report, Privileges and Procedures chair Karen Shenton-Stone described the existing voluntary complaints service as “stellar”, and said that an alternative approach building on its “fantastic work” might instead be adopted – rather than set up an ombudsman to resolve complaints about public services.

Her comments follow reservations expressed in the States in April by Chief Minister Lyndon Farnham who said additional work should be undertaken to see if a better balance could be found “between what we have and going to the full service of an ombudsperson which would be costly”. He added that the government would probably bring any proposed changes back to the Assembly.

In the report, Mrs Shenton-Stone said: “The ombudsman role has yet to be implemented, and it may be that ultimately a different approach will instead be adopted which builds on the fantastic work which the panel has undertaken. In the meantime, we should be incredibly grateful that [it] continues to provide an independent and unbiased complaints process for those who feel they have not been treated fairly when accessing public services.”

She added that the panel had “continued to provide a stellar complaints service for Islanders, despite having no certainty regarding their future”.

Commenting on the work of the panel, chair Geoffrey Crill said that it was an ombudsman in all but name according to the criteria of the Ombudsman Association.

“It is independent; it alone determines whether a complaint falls within its jurisdiction and is accountable to the States Assembly, not the government,” he said.

Last year, the panel received 12 new complaints for review, with a further nine cases being held over from 2022, and nine informal inquiries made. Of the new complaints, three related to the Treasury and three to Health, while two involved Social Security and Children, Young People, Education and Skills, and one Planning and the Chief Minister’s Department.

Mr Crill said poor communication remained common to most complaints, repeatedly exacerbating situations where there had already been a breakdown of trust.

“The government really must do better. It is just not good enough to blame a misunderstanding amongst officials as the reason for someone being ignored for months…We appreciate that ministers are exceptionally busy people, but they do have a number of staff dedicated to supporting them in their endeavours. It should go without saying that timely and reliable responses to the public are critical in establishing and maintaining trust in government by the public, and where members of the public are unwitting victims of government actions or shortcomings, that should be an absolute and overriding priority,” he said.

In his comments, Mr Crill returned to a concern of previous reports, the importance of his panel’s findings being responded to appropriately by government departments.

While it was accepted that those findings should not be binding, there should be a “reasonable expectation” that they would be complied with, he argued.

Commenting on one of the cases resolved last year – concerning the pension entitlement of a retired firefighter – which required three hearings to resolve, the first dating back to 2000, Mr Crill said: “It is this absence of ‘reasonable expectation’ that was demonstrated vividly in this particular case, even to the extent of a refusal to accept findings of fact…It was heartening that common sense prevailed and the complainant finally received the justice which had been withheld for so long.

“What was disappointing was that it took his tenacity and the persistence of the board to achieve this outcome. It should not be the case that justice is only served when someone fights doggedly against the system and that a minister has to be told something three times before findings are accepted.”

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