JULIAN SPALDING: WHY WE SHOULD ABOLISH THE ABOMINABLE OMBUDSMAN

JULIAN SPALDING 
The name Ombudsman, derived from the Nordic word for a Grievance Man, has a comforting ring. It evokes an older age, when rectitude was the rule in public as well as private life.

I fondly believed that if I ever had cause to call on the Ancient Ombudsman, justice would be done. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I finally had need of him due to the worry and suffering caused to my wife and myself by the terrible saga of the City of Edinburgh Council’s grossly incompetent and almost certainly corrupt handling of its Statutory Notice repairs procedure.

Early this year we finally got the bill for the work done on our flat, a mere thirteen years after the process had begun, much of which we found out to be unnecessary. But we were comforted to read that the Council promised that if we were unhappy with the charges in any way, we could take the matter to their Investigation Stage, when a senior officer of the Council would examine our case.

The information in the bill was so cursory (because, as the Council admitted, most of the paper work for this job had been lost) that we felt we had no option but to request to go to the Investigation Stage.

On doing so, we were immediately informed by the Council that it had no Investigation Stage! We could ask for more information about the bill through the Freedom of Information Procedure, but this would not affect the charge, which, in their opinion, was not in dispute. They promptly sent us a Final Account and threatened to take us to court if we didn’t pay.

What could we do but appeal to the good offices of the Ombudsman? Surely, we thought, he would come riding down on his high charger, and with his shining sword pin the squealing, lying Council to the ground for not following its own promised procedure.

So, with hope in our hearts, we complained to the Ombudsman, carefully answering all his questions, backed up with copies of a considerable heap of papers.

We weren’t asking the Ombudsman to judge whether the Council was right or wrong. All we wanted him to do was to make the Council follow the Investigation Procedure they had promised us.

The Ombudsman’s response was a surprisingly prompt ‘No’.

A junior official informed us that the Ombudsman couldn’t consider our case at all because we could still get information about this charge, and the Ombudsman could only act when the Council had made its Final Decision.

I objected, pointing out that the Council had said that no matter how much information I got from them about the bill, this would not affect their position because the charge was not, in their opinion, in dispute. What was more final, I asked the Ombudsman, than a Final Notice to pay? Couldn’t he act on that?

Ah no, came the reply from the official, a Final Demand to pay wasn’t the same as the Council making a Final Decision!

So the Ombudsman, far from being a knight in shining armour, was not only helpless but also toothless. And, as I was shortly to discover, he was hiding behind a wall.

We naturally complained about the Ombudsman’s decision not even to consider our case. Wasn’t it the Ombudsman’s primary role to protect citizens from unjust treatment by local authorities, from a council that didn’t even follow its own promised procedures?

Not in this case, the official assured us. We couldn’t complain about the Ombudsman’s decision because the Ombudsman’s decision is always final.

In this age of transparent government, the Ombudsman is remarkably opaque. A less polite word would be thick, thick in the sense that he is obdurate to the suffering of the citizens he exists to help and thick in the sense that his invisibility makes one suspicious that he’s in league with the council he exists to protect its citizens from.

If only the Council had followed their promised Investigation Stage procedure, then all the outstanding Statutory Notice bills could have been sorted out, as they will eventually have to be, without the ensuing bullying, expense and pain.

It is an issue of personal honour not to pay any un-quantified bill, from a garage, a council or whoever – especially not one for work that was inordinately delayed, grossly mismanaged and incompetently executed.

Surely it’s the Ombudsman’s job to uphold this individual right? If so, in this case the Ombudsman has failed in his duty and, instead, performed a disappearing act.

The UK government, I hear, are looking for further ways to cut public spending. They could start with abolishing the Invisible Ombudsman. For what good he does, no one would mind if he disappeared, for good.

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