Human rights, poor administration and pandemic hardship dominate Victorian Ombudsman’s work in 2021-22Date posted:
In 2021-22 financial year the Ombudsman received close to 19,000 jurisdictional complaints, resulting in 5,260 enquiries, 31 formal investigations using Royal Commission powers and six tabled reports. The issues ranged from the simplest oversight to downright heartbreaking.
The woman unable to cross the Victorian border to care for her starving animals; the environment group worried about contaminated spoil; the pensioner struggling with fines on a speeding ticket.
“People have always been at the heart of Ombudsman work, and in another year defined by events outside our control, it is their stories that continue to resonate.” Deborah Glass said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally shifted people’s perception and awareness of human rights, as people reacted to limitations on their freedoms, whether lockdowns or border closures or changes to our everyday lives, such as mask-wearing, to help keep the community safe.
The Ombudsman is the state’s human rights investigator. This year saw 200 more complaints engage human rights issues than the previous year, taking the figure to 2,937.
One decision that impacted the human rights of many Victorians was the Department of Health’s Victorian Border Crossing Permit Directions. Tabled in December 2021 the investigation underlined a common theme in the Ombudsman experience: the importance of good administrative decision-making.
“Failing to exercise discretion fairly, not giving reasons for decisions, failing to offer a right of review – these can all damage public trust in those who make decisions, and ultimately, in government.” Ms Glass said.
The most complained about public bodies were prisons (3,578) and local councils (3,555); followed by complaints about community and public housing, COVID-19 public health directions and Business Victoria – although complaints about administration of the Business Support Fund (Business Victoria) were vastly reduced compared to last year.
Victoria’s public interest disclosure scheme encourages people to report improper conduct or detrimental action in the Victorian public sector and ensures those people are protected.
In 2020, changes to the Ombudsman Act provided the office with additional powers which allowed for enquiries to be made on public interest complaints. In the 2021-22 financial year, the use of these powers has seen an increase of over 125% in the number of public interest complaint allegations able to be resolved via enquiries and without the use of formal investigation powers.
Innovative ways of working and resolving complaints has helped with efficiencies within the office, including a trial of a range of digital channels including Webchat and SMS to help make the office more accessible.
Finances continue to operate with the Treasurer’s commitment to make up any shortfall to allow the office to do the job expected of it by Parliament and the public.
“While I am grateful that my funding is no longer a current issue, I am also aware – together with my fellow integrity agency heads – that more could be done to embed independent budget processes, so this does not become an issue again in future.” Ms Glass said.
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