Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Government u-turn on access to Ombudsman

The Localism Bill received its Third Reading in the House of Lords last night and will now return to the Commons with amendments. At the last minute the government put forward an amendment that will allow tenants direct access to the ombudsman in certain circumstances.

The government's intention in drafting the housing complaints proposals in the Bill was to promote the resolution of complaints as far as possible at the most local level, and to encourage a system where ideally the ombudsman is brought in only where local resolution does not prove possible. Consequently it had sought to introduce a new "democratic filter" which would have prevented the Ombudsman from investigating until a written referral was made by an MP, local councillor or a designated tenant panel.

However, as reported previously by CoalitionWatch, these arrangements proved controversial, leading the government to look again at its plans.

The amendment means that tenants will retain the option to go directly to the Housing Ombudsman if eight weeks have elapsed since the end of the landlord's internal complaints process, or if a local representative explicitly declines to refer the complaint to the ombudsman or agrees that the tenant may approach the ombudsman directly.

Communities and Local Government minister Baroness Hanham explained the reasoning behind the eight week time limit:
"It allows sufficient time for a complaint to reach the local representative and for the local representative to make representations to the landlord and achieve a successful resolution to the complaint without imposing an unnecessary or onerous delay on the tenant. It might help the House if I unpick this a little further.

"First, as the clock starts at the end of the landlord's process in our proposal, we would expect the tenant to require a little time to forward the complaint to the local representative, and we make allowance for this. Secondly, it is important to recognise that in most cases the local representative will want to review the case materials before going further and will possibly want to discuss them with the tenant. It is key to our aim of getting local representatives more involved in housing complaints that they are given the space and opportunity to do that. If, on the other hand, the local representative concludes that the complaint cannot be resolved locally, they do not need to wait for the eight weeks to elapse. They can at any stage refer the complaint to the ombudsman or agree to the tenant accessing the ombudsman directly. We believe that we should trust local representatives on the ground to make this judgment and to provide effective support and advocacy on behalf of tenants."

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