redress of grievances

The right to petition government for redress of grievances is the right to make a complaint to, or seek the assistance of, one's government, without fear of punishment or reprisals. The right can be traced back to the Bill of Rights 1689, the Petition of Right (1628), and Magna Carta (1215) and is protected in the US Bill of Rights.

Redress of grievances refers to the legitimate expectation by a citizen in a democratic society that complaints against public officials will be considered fairly and impartially and that legal remedies for wrongs will be available where malpractice be revealed.

What is the role of the Ombudsman in the redressing of grievances?

· The Ombudsman or Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (PCA) was first appointed in 1967. It is the job of the PCA to investigate complaints of maladministration which occur in the departments of central bodies.

· Members of the public cannot refer cases directly to the PCA. They must be passed on through an MP. Since 1988, however, the Local Government Ombudsman has been directly accessible to members of the public.

· Once a complaint is received, it is acted upon only if there is no other way of dealing with it and if the complaint satisfies the provisions of the 1967 Act – which states that a person must have good reason to claim ‘to have sustained injustice as a consequence of maladministration’. Maladministration, however, is not defined in the Act.

· Ombudsmen have wide powers. They can compel witnesses to attend private hearings and inspect relevant files and papers. After the investigation, a report is submitted to a House of Commons select committee and published. If maladministration has taken place, the Ombudsman recommends an appropriate remedy although the government department is not obliged to accept it. In most cases, an apology or financial compensation is offered but sometimes changes to administrative procedures are implemented. 

What is the role of Parliament in the redressing of grievances?

Another possible defender of the rights of the citizen is Parliament. Constituents have a right to see their MP, either in Westminster or in the MP’s surgery in their constituency. MPs do not have extensive powers individually, but they do have some powers to protect people’s rights:

· MPs can write directly to a minister or a government department, agency and quango. It is expected that a MP’s complaint will be taken seriously and replied to. Many minor issues, such as the non-payment of money owed to citizens by the Inland Revenue, or disability pensions, are dealt with effectively as this level.

· They can question a minister orally at Question Time or put down a written question. The latter tends to be more effective, particularly in miscarriage of justice cases.

· They can raise the matter as an adjournment debate at the end of a parliamentary day. This tends to be most effective when dealing with issues affecting groups of constituents – consider, for example, the way in which MPs from rural constituencies used it to protect farmers in the foot-and-mouth crisis.

· They can refer a matter to the ombudsman or a parliamentary select committee. The ombudsman (the parliamentary commissioner for administration) does have some investigative powers.

On the whole, however, the scope for MPs is fairly limited, unless they are part of a wider campaign. The example of Chris Mullin MP and the wrongful conviction of the Birmingham Six shows this.

A MP also might not take on a case because: (1) it may not be important enough to raise; (2) MPs are very busy and might not have the time to take it on or pursue it with vigour; (3) party discipline is important and so they may be discouraged from raising embarrassing issues; (4) MPs have limited office, research and secretarial facilities; and (5) MPs vary in terms of interest and ability.