Cabinet approves ombudsman plan

Government is pushing ahead with a proposed merger of the offices of the Information Commissioner and the Complaints Commissioner, despite concerns the move will dilute the effectiveness of both watchdogs.

The new Ombudsman’s Office will also have responsibility for handling complaints against the police force, which government says will save the expense of setting up a separate Police Complaints Authority.

The Deputy Governor’s Office confirmed, in a statement Friday, that Cabinet had given the green light for the merger, saying administrative savings would help fund officers for the new unit, which will also be responsible for enforcing elements of whistleblower legislation and the Data Protection Bill, if and when it is passed into law. A project team has been established with the aim of setting up the new office by the end of the year.

The Deputy Governor’s Office anticipates savings of $661,000 by negating the need to establish a Police Complaints Authority as well as $205,000 in savings from the merger of the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Office of the Complaints Commissioner.

“This will be achieved by eliminating a post at the head of one of the entities and combining two administrative roles,” the statement says. Overall it will mean a net reduction of $83,000 in government’s annual budget allocation to the independent government oversight bodies.

An outline business case for the project, produced by the Deputy Governor’s Office, presents a structure for the new unit involving an Ombudsman and two deputies overseeing a team of five investigators, with the relevant expertise for the multiple functions of the unit. A parliamentary sub-committee will have oversight responsibility.

The business case suggests the switch is the most cost-effective way to introduce a function for handling police complaints, which currently does not exist, despite being a requirement of the 2010 Police Law.

The report states that currently, “Serious complaints against the police are handled internally, which creates a significant potential conflict of interest, or have not been addressed. Public confidence in policing is eroded without an independent complaints function and potential complainants may be put off if they do not believe the complaints process to be fair and impartial.”

The business case acknowledges there has been some resistance to combining the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Office of the Complaints Commissioner. It states, “The main thrust of the arguments from the ICO and the previous Complaints Commissioner is that their functions are different and a merger may compromise their independence and influence …

“In reality, both agencies deal with public complaints whether it concerns complaints of maladministration or complaints against government for not releasing information. The business case demonstrates that the merger has the potential to actually strengthen their function, improve service, and would save money.”