Saturday, 26 September 2015

Chocolate teapot: the Local Government Ombudsman

"Dr" Jane Martin, the Local Government Ombudsman, takes home, according to her shambolic and disgraceful organisation's annual accounts, between £135,000 and £140,000 per annum.  The organisation costs the taxpayer £20m, of which £12m goes to support its alleged delivery of its duties under the Local Government Act, and £8m to plug a hole in its pension fund.  The £12m would be better spent on paying off its parasites and replacing it with a fit-for-purpose body that is capable of shining a light on the murky and inconsistent world of local government.

As part of the Coalition's "bonfire" of red tape, which was more an inchoate smouldering, bodies such as the LGO should have been held up to scrutiny.  The poor quality of national decision-making and the inability of much of government to understand the consequential impacts of its actions, hardly surprising given it was under Eric Pickles's remit, meant that the obvious corollary to the "localism" agenda Hameron put forward was the need to have a body of external repute and competency to ensure that as controls over local government conduct were loosened there was a credible check to the activities of the venal and incompetent.

Instead the LGO has continued on its unaccountable, self-satisfied smug path - perceived as acting as at best an apologetic gatekeeper to protect the interests of councils, who are after all its main clients and most consistent contacts.  Any organisation which, by its own admission, only upholds around 2% of the complaints it receives - invariably at the end of a protracted process of frustration and financial, psychological and physical damage to the aggrieved party, and which, for up to a quarter of other cases, attempts to negotiate "local settlements"( in which the victim is not even party to the discussion or decision-making) is a parody and an insult.

The interpretation that "Dr" Martin places upon her poltroonery is that the LGO is purely there to remedy "injustice".  In defining the organisation's role through an abstract concept, it avoids both consistency and the ability to define a term to hold her and her third-rate pen-pushers to account.  It is also beyond her competence and that of anything beyond case law to determine, but that does not stop a brigade of self-empowered arrogant ignoramuses (alternatively referred to as Investigators) from assuming the moral high ground.

Any organisation that lacks transparency and accountability is likely to maladminister and assume that it can get away with it indefinitely.  Instead of a definition of "injustice" that appears to flex within even an individual LGO investigation, a properly-consistuted organisation would define clear objectives across the whole of local government with respect to the level of professional conduct citizens should expect and the remedies when any organisation falls short.  Maladministration and failure to follow process is not just about the consequences when the victim suffers the consequences of council decisions and actions, but the interaction between authority and citizen, with the expectation that statutory and defined processes are followed.  This should be enough in itself to send alarm bells ringing.

It might be slightly better if a reasonable person could not entertain suspicion that the LGO itself is less than impartial.  The number of its staff with a local authority background is not clear, as it is not something that it would wish to advertise.  Without proper scrutiny this is a recipe for at best unconscious cronyism, given that the tendency of local government officers is to cling together given the justified obloquy that they meet in those who have passed beyond mere satisfaction at meeting a daily challenge of walking and breathing at the same time.  The manner in which complainants are trivialised and belittled by the LGO, without sight of (potentially misleading and mendacious) interactions between the LGO Investigator and the organisation complained about, is hardly a manifestation of "justice" - ringing further tocsins.

Accountability of government is a basic precondition of a civilised society with aspirations to democracy.  The LGO is manifestly failing - and, at least in the short term, saving £20m by consigning it to the dustbin would probably not have a material increase in the consequential impact of local government misdeeds.  Indeed, if the remedy of the courts was open, and funded, at the exhaustion of local process, councils might be less inclined to cut corners and screw over their residents - after all open proceedings could result in much more scrutiny and internal control before issues got to the complaint stage.

Martin and her self-satisfied annual report and "Business Plan", which, on the LGO website, does not refer at all to the objectives of remedying the impact of bad local government, merely to the current voguish "stakeholders", should be given the push.  Paying taxes for efficient local services is one thing - £20m would buy a huge bucket of whitewash, after all.  Paying for an organisation which is inspired in equal parts by Orwell, Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka in perverting language, arrogating the concept of "justice" and acting well beyond a reasonable interpretation of its powers and scope, is not acceptable.

At least a chocolate teapot has an alternative function, and is edible.  The LGO should only be gobbled up by the cesspit that, in an ideal world, awaits useless fig-leafs for government arrogance and incompetence.

In contemporary terms, if the LGO were a car, it would be a Volkswagen diesel.

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