Ombudsman has 'independent role'

25th September 1998 at 01:00
The article "Mystery watchdog who leads a quiet life' (FE Focus, September 4) focused on a real challenge for the statutory education funding agencies. Perhaps I might take the analysis a bit further.

As the Further Education Funding Council's ombudsman, John Bevan's role is to investigate complaints from FEFC service users - the colleges - and from the council's own staff. He submits an annual report on his findings, making it publicly available.

In this respect, the council is the only organisation of its kind which has an ombudsman to oversee its work. We believe his appointment signals our commitment and openness to scrutiny. Our appointment of an ombudsman should be seen alongside other arrangements, such as our code on access to information and our commitment to consultation.

When John Bevan was appointed, the sector was informed about the new arrangements through the circular ("Complaints about the Council's Administration", 9625). Almost 4,000 copies were issued, and a press release, which hardly constitutes invisibility. The sector was consulted in early 1995 concerning the conduct of the council's business, and an ombudsman was suggested as a point of contact for complaints exhausted via internal procedures.

Our ombudsman has access to independent legal advice - separate from the council's own legal advisers - and is appointed for four years. This is longer than the normal term served by council members, and goes a long way to assuring his independence.

The typical role of an ombudsman is to investigate a complaint as a last resort, once all other avenues of investigation have been exhausted. Maladministration - not policy decisions and judgments - are the mainstay of investigations by ombudsmen. The council itself does respond to complaints concerning policies and judgments. There is also a separate appeals procedure for colleges to question inspection grades. This is, I believe, unique to our inspectorate.

Colleges are also free to complain to the Secretary of State about the council, and to call for a judicial review of our actions. On the three occasions that we have been challenged by judicial review, our position has been upheld.

It is therefore misleading to associate the role of our ombudsman with that of one which might be introduced to oversee the sector as a whole. We have no power to appoint an ombudsman for the sector, but have advocated that there is a place for such a role.

We are confident that Dr Bevan is fulfilling his responsibilities. Furthermore, we believe that we are doing far more than the bare minimum to ensure our commitment to openness and transparency, and that we have some of the best arrangements in place. Even though I believe that these arrangements could withstand considerable scrutiny, we are always looking to consolidate further. What we need now is discussion and debate on the real issues regarding governance and accountability in the FE sector.

Elizabeth Maddison

Secretary to the Further Education Funding Council

Cheylesmore House,

Quinton Road,

Coventry CV1 2WT

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