Ombudsman in Sweden
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Summary

In 1998 the Swedish Government appointed a one-man committee of inquiry to review the current activities of the Children’s Ombudsman. The intention was that the evaluation should result in a series of proposals describing how the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman might be strengthened and activities rendered more effective. This is an English summary of the report of the evaluation, published in 1999.

Inquiry into the role and function of the Children’s Ombudsman in Sweden, Swedish Government Official Report No.1999:65

Introduction

The institution of the ombudsman is a longstanding tradition under Swedish law. The office of Parliamentary Ombudsman was established in 1809 in connection with the introduction of the new Constitution. Over the last thirty years, several ombudsmen have been appointed in different spheres. The Consumer Ombudsman took office in 1971, to be followed by the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman, the Ombudsman against Ethnic Discrimination, the Children's Ombudsman, the Disability Ombudsman and the Ombudsman against Discrimination because of Sexual Orientation.

The Office of the Children's Ombudsman, which was set up in 1993, has been in existence for six years. Both in Sweden and a number of other countries the establishment of this office formed part of the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The main task of the Children's Ombudsman has been to monitor compliance with the provisions of the CRC in Sweden, to indicate shortcomings, and on the basis of the intentions of the Convention to formulate proposals for amendments.

In the spring of 1998, the Government appointed a one-man committee of inquiry to review the current activities of the Children's Ombudsman. The intention was that the evaluation should result in a series of proposals describing how the Office of the Children's Ombudsman might be strengthened and activities rendered more effective. The committee was also charged with the task of describing the part played by the Children's Ombudsman in making the CRC known and transforming it into an everyday tool for work with children and young people. The committee was also requested to elucidate and seek to resolve the conflict inherent in the double role of the Ombudsman – it is intended to act as the representative of children and young people at the same time as it is a public agency accountable to the Government.

The committee was also asked to consider the future role of the Children's Ombudsman in the shaping of statistical data on children and young people up to the age of 18, the opportunities open to the Children's Ombudsman to monitor research on children, and also to evaluate the methods employed by the Ombudsman when collecting information and organising information activities. The question of how the Ombudsman should go about obtaining and utilising the views of children and young people was considered to be particularly relevant in this context. The committee was also asked to suggest where responsibility for children's recreational and outdoor environments should lie.

Göran Håkansson, Director-General of the Aliens Appeals Board, was appointed to conduct the investigation. Special advisers and experts from the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, Statistics Sweden, the National Board for Youth Affairs, the Ministry of Education and Science and the National Board for Intercountry Adoptions were attached to the committee. Katarina Adolfson, Associate Judge of Appeal, and Barbro Holmberg, a social science graduate, served as secretaries to the committee of inquiry.

A reference group consisting of young people in the 15 to 16 age-group was also attached to the committee. The members of the reference group, who conducted their own investigations in their respective schools, concentrated mainly on the question of what children and young people know about the Children's Ombudsman and the Ombudsman's ability to pass on information to children and young people and to capture their views on various issues.

Evaluation of the Children's Ombudsman

In the estimation of the committee, the Children's Ombudsman has played a significant role in the development of issues relating to children during the six years she has been in operation, chiefly through information and opinion-moulding activities. By gathering and compiling expert knowledge from various sources, the Children's Ombudsman has highlighted and made visible the overall living conditions of children and young people. In this way the Children's Ombudsman has helped create a comprehensive picture of the lives of children and young people at a general level.

A comprehensive picture of this kind has played an important role for the activities of a number of public agencies and organisations. For example, the questionnaires sent out by the committee show that more than one half of the country's county administrative boards consider the Ombudsman's information and opinion-moulding activities to be an asset in their task of supervising the social services provided by the municipalities.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) determines the operations of the Children's Ombudsman. In the estimation of the committee, the Children's Ombudsman has taken long-term measures to bring momentum to the implementation of the CRC in Sweden. Several of the proposals put forward by the Ombudsman in the last six years have resulted in measures of various kinds. For example, the contents of the strategy for the implementation of the CRC in Sweden adopted by the Swedish parliament (Riksdag) in March 1999 correspond closely to the proposals presented by the Children's Ombudsman in the annual reports she has submitted regularly to the Government ever since 1994.

The evaluation also reveals weaknesses in the mandate and direction of the work undertaken by the Children's Ombudsman. For example, the Ombudsman has no legal powers. Similarly, the Children's Ombudsman has had limited opportunity to build networks and contacts in her capacity as the representative of children and young people. The establishment of existing networks was based on priorities relating to tasks set out in the agency's instruction, appropriation directions and commissions from the Government. The majority of the Ombudman's contacts relate to the exercise of public authority. Contacts with children and young people, with NGOs and professionals who work with children have not been accorded the same priority.

Work by the Ombudsman to examine whether Swedish laws and their application comply with the CRC have focused largely on monitoring the legislative process. This was natural in the initial phase, when it was important to disseminate knowledge about the CRC at the national level and to ensure that it had an impact on laws and regulations that are fundamental to conditions for children and young people in Sweden. However, the committee considers that it is now time for a certain reorientation of these activities.

Representing children and young people

The activities of the Children's Ombudsman should primarily be based on the interests of children. Thus, the fundamental task of the Children's Ombudsman is to represent children and young people. That is to say, to be the "voice" of children and young people in society, to assert their point of view and insist on respect for their human rights. Children whose situation is precarious in one way or another find it particularly difficult to make themselves heard and influence their situation. Therefore, it is the view of the committee, that the Children's Ombudsman should continue to devote special attention to issues relating to disadvantaged children.

In this context the Ombudsman represents a civic perspective; the community's fundamental and common interest in ensuring that all children and young people are granted the rights set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

To enable the Ombudsman to apply a child perspective at a general level, in-depth knowledge about the circumstances of children and young people and the varying needs of different age-groups is required. In the committee's opinion, the Children's Ombudsman should seek knowledge as "close" to children and young people as possible. This means that the most important source of knowledge must be children and young persons themselves, parents, personnel who work with children and young people, and organisations that run activities for children and young people. These concrete and immediate experiences then need to be correlated with other, more general knowledge gleaned from research material and statistical data as well as from organisations and public agencies.

Representing children and young people is the core feature of the Ombudsman's role. Therefore, if the Ombudsman wishes to lend weight to her/his role as representative, the Children's Ombudsman should prioritise and develop direct contacts with children and young people. The committee is of the opinion that this task is so crucial that it should be confirmed by law.

A prerequisite for developing contacts with children and young people is that the Children's Ombudsman is allowed greater freedom of action and more opportunities to work flexibly. It is crucial that the Office of the Children's Ombudsman has the opportunity to set its own agenda. Contacts with children and young people can never be based on the same structure as cooperation with public agencies and organisations. Such activities require great flexibility within the Ombudsman's own organisation.

Strengthening the role of ombudsman

Since the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child constitutes a point of departure, it was only natural for the committee to attach importance to the statements about the Children's Ombudsman made by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the recommendations concerning national institutions for human rights adopted by the UN General Assembly, the so-called Paris principles. The purpose of these documents is – as far as this is possible – to make the national institutions more effective in their efforts to promote and monitor human rights.

These documents identify four fundamental characteristics that are essential for the effective promotion of human rights. The national institution's task to protect the human rights of one or more groups should be confirmed by law, and the authority concerned should have independent status in relation to the Government. Furthermore, the institution should have a mandate to take initiatives in its own right and be entitled to make statements and publish its findings.

In view of the work performed by the Ombudsman so far and the committee’s evaluation of how well the Ombudsman fulfils these criteria, the committee proposes that the ombudsman’s role as a representative for children and young people should be strengthened. With a more precisely defined and strengthened representative function, the Children's Ombudsman would have the profile which, not only children and young people, but also a number of agencies, municipalities and NGOs demand. That is to say, it would serve as the representative of children and young people and its main task would be to actively promote and monitor the rights perspective as set out in the Convention. In the committee's view, the Children's Ombudsman in Sweden has been most effective in upholding the rights of children and young people when she has been in a position to act as their representative and been able to refer to their experiences and views.

If greater emphasis is placed on the representative role of the Children's Ombudsman, then its role as a public agency will be toned down. The committee has discussed the possibility of strengthening the Children's Ombudsman by reinforcing her/his role as an authority. However, such a course of action would be in conflict, both with the fundamental principle underlying the ombudsman concept, and with the international principles. What we would be talking about in such a case would be a "Children's Board" or "Children's Agency" with overall responsibility for implementing the Government's policy in this sphere.

Greater independence

An important criterion for an Ombudsman is independence. An Ombudsman must be independent in relation to both the Government and political parties, NGOs and others. However, it is important to emphasise that a government-appointed ombudsman can never be completely independent. The law in combination with the power of the principal to make decisions about the Ombudsman's budget places certain constraints on the work of the Ombudsman.

The committee has found that there are two main ways in which the independence of the Ombudsman might be increased. In one case, the Children's Ombudsman could be made accountable to the parliament. In the other scenario, the Ombudsman would continue to be a public agency accountable to the Government, but would be accorded as much independence as possible while retaining the same principal.

If the question of independence is considered only in relation to the Government then the first alternative is to be preferred. Such a solution would completely remove the Children's Ombudsman from the influence of the Government, but it also raises a number of other questions. Changing the Ombudsman's principal would mark a departure from the constitutional division of responsibility according to the Swedish Constitution.

Another question arising from a change of principal is the independent status of the Children's Ombudsman in relation to the parliament. In exactly the same way as a Government, parts of or the entire parliament may have ideas and views about the activities of the Ombudsman. Thus, to achieve the desired degree of independence, the Ombudsman's independent status must be guaranteed, irrespective of whether it is the parliament or the Government that serves as principal.

Opinion-moulding is an important instrument for promoting and monitoring the rights of children and young people pursuant to the provisions of the CRC. This work includes inter alia interpreting the Convention in a national perspective and asserting the rights of children and young people in Sweden on the basis of that interpretation. Naturally this type of activity is simplified if it is accompanied by a dialogue between the Ombudsman and its principal. A dialogue of this kind is easy to arrange if the principal is the Government with a minister who is responsible for the issues concerned. It is more difficult to envisage a dialogue with the parliament in its role as principal, since all political parties with their various views are represented there. Since the practical implementation of the principles contained in the CRC is open to a variety of political interpretations, the Children's Ombudsman could be forced to keep a lower profile if the Parliament were its principal than if it were accountable to a Government body.

In the light of the above, the committee does not believe that changing the principal would have the required effect of strengthening the Office of the Children's Ombudsman. Therefore, the Government should continue to act as principal for the Children's Ombudsman. Instead the independent status of the Ombudsman should be boosted in other ways. The committee therefore proposes:

A mandate confirmed by law. The committee proposes that the duties and functions of the Children's Ombudsman should be clearly formulated by law, not in an instruction. Thus, the Riksdag should determine the mandate, and the Government should have no power to change the contents of that mandate.
The opportunity to set its own agenda. The committee also proposes that appropriation directions for the Children's Ombudsman should not specify tasks that constrain the Ombudsman in her/his duties or prevent the Ombudsman from shaping her/his activities on the basis of its own assessments.

Legal powers

The Children's Ombudsman is the only ombudsman in Sweden with no form of legal powers. International and national experiences alike show that such powers help to improve the efficacy of the work of ombudsmen.

The committee therefore proposes that the Children's Ombudsman be given the power to request information from agencies, municipal and county council authorities and to summon these bodies to talks. Furthermore, in the Ombudsman’s work to monitor compliance with the law, she/he should have right of access to documents in cases and matters in which these bodies are involved including documents which obtain classified information.

Operating at a general level

The Children's Ombudsman is the only ombudsman in Sweden that does not handle individual cases. Individual cases provide the other Ombudsmen with knowledge and experiences that are useful in activities of a more general nature. This has given the committee cause to consider whether the Children's Ombudsman should also handle individual cases.

One possibility would be to transfer supervisory responsibilities for certain types of cases to the Office of the Children's Ombudsman. However, such an arrangement for complaints about the handling of individual cases and subsequent intervention on the part of the Ombudsman would in all likelihood make such heavy demands on the time and resources of the Office that other activities would be pushed into the background.

In the light of this situation and the fact that the work of the Ombudsman has been highly successful at a general level, the committee has decided not to propose any changes to the mandate of the Children's Ombudsman on this point. Thus, the Children's Ombudsman should continue to work at a general level by upholding the human rights of children and young people on the basis of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The tasks of the Children's Ombudsman

To promote the rights of children according to the CRC

Active promotion of the CRC means that the Children's Ombudsman should spearhead work on the Convention. "Spearhead" is used here to mean that the Ombudsman should be one step ahead of developments by having a cohesive body of knowledge about the living conditions of children and young people and by disseminating knowledge of best practices in order to show the way and stimulate the development of methods.

One way for the Ombudsman to obtain access to such experiences is to initiate various pilot projects which could be conducted by, for example, NGOs and municipalities in cooperation with the Ombudsman. Such measures call for funding over and above the Ombudman's regular budget. Even if the committee proposes that the Ombudsman should have a more independent position than is the case at present there is nothing to stop the Government – in consultation with the Ombudsman – from authorising the Ombudsman to allocate project funds from the Swedish Inheritance Fund to various organisations.

In the view of the committee, the main task of the Children's Ombudsman in her/his efforts to promote the implementation of the CRC should be to encourage children and young people to play an active role in the process of change. Children and young people should be encouraged to participate actively in the implementation of the Convention and in monitoring that the provisions of the Convention are observed. In order to ascertain the practical effect of work to implement the CRC it will be necessary to ask children and young people if they feel that their rights are being provided for.

Monitoring observance of the Convention on the Rights of the Child

In the opinion of the committee, the Children's Ombudsman should change its approach when it seeks to monitor observance of the CRC in Swedish legislation. Instead of primarily supervising the introduction of new legislation, the Ombudsman should monitor how existing legislation is implemented in relation to the CRC. Therefore, the Office of the Children's Ombudsman should devote a greater portion of her/his time to surveying generally how courts, public agencies, municipalities and county councils apply existing rules and regulations. To ensure that the Children's Ombudsman is able to perform this task as effectively as possible, the committee proposes – as mentioned above – that the Ombudsman be granted legal powers.

The Ombudsman may receive information to the effect that existing regulations in a particular field are not being implemented according to the intentions of the CRC. The Ombudsman can then request the files relating to a number of cases or matters in order to carry out her/his own investigation and assessment. On the basis of such an investigation the Ombudsman can then determine if the regulations have not been observed on account of some shortcoming in legislation as such or because public agencies or other bodies are not taking sufficient account of the CRC and its principles when decisions are made.

Information activities and opinion-moulding

The committee proposes that the tasks involving information activities, opinion-moulding, publishing statements and taking initiatives that are incumbent on the Children's Ombudsman should be confirmed by law. The Ombudsman shall make public her/his views based on the perspective of children and young people. Therefore, on the basis of the rights of children and young people as they are set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Children's Ombudsman should in principle be able to act independently of the interests of other public bodies. There should be no hint of compliance with the wishes of others.

The committee's opinion is that the information and opinion-moulding activities of the Office of the Children's Ombudsman have been essential as regards drawing attention to children and young people in the public debate. Among other things, the Ombudsman's annual reports to the Government have been important in this context. The committee therefore proposes that the duty of the Children's Ombudsman to submit an annual report to the Government be confirmed by law.

Furthermore, the committee considers that the Office of the Children's Ombudsman should direct her/his efforts to children and young people themselves to a greater extent than previously so that children and young people know about the Ombudsman and perceive her/him to be their own Ombudsman.

Contacts with others

The committee's proposal to strengthen the role of the Ombudsman means that government control of the Ombudsman's priorities will be reduced. Consequently, on the basis of her/his own experience, the Ombudsman will be able to independently establish contacts with parents, professional groups working with children, organisations and the public agencies whose assistance the Ombudsman needs to perform her/his duties. Cooperation with other authorities in matters where the Ombudsman is responsible for measures will not be possible in its present form according to the committee's proposals. On the other hand, there is nothing to prevent the Office of the Children's Ombudsman, in its capacity as representative of children and young people, from taking part in discussions or providing support for the authorities in their work. The committee holds the view that the Children's Ombudsman should not, neither for reasons of principle nor of resources, be included as an expert in government inquiries of different kinds, unless there are special grounds for such participation.

As regards delimitation between the Children's Ombudsman and other Ombudsmen, the committee stresses that the general tasks of the Office of the Children's Ombudsman include protecting the rights of children with a functional disability. On the other hand, the committee considers that in matters that specifically concern the child's functional disability, the Office of the Disability Ombudsman appears to be best equipped to defend the child's rights.

International work

The committee proposes that the Children's Ombudsman should prioritise international commitments that provide knowledge and inspiration for national work relating to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This primarily means contacts with other countries’ Children's Ombudsmen, such as Nordic cooperation and cooperation in the European Network of Ombudsmen for Children (ENOC). Furthermore, it refers to the work in progress within the international bodies that hold an authoritative position regarding interpretation and application of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, that is to say in the first instance the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Unicef. The Council of Europe is also of interest in this context.

On the other hand, the committee does not consider the resources of the Children's Ombudsman to be sufficient to allow participation in the building up of national Offices of Children's Ombudsmen in other countries or training and information contributions around the world, however urgently these may be needed. Responsibility for this type of assignment should instead rest with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

The role of the Children’s Ombudsman in the reporting process to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is a issue of special interest. In this context the Swedish committee of inquiry proposes that the Government forward a draft report to the Children's Ombudsman for comment. Thus, it will be a question of the regular procedure of forwarding the draft report to the Children's Ombudsman for comment, which will then be attached to the Government's final report to the UN Committee. There is nothing to prevent the UN Committee from taking the initiative to obtain the Ombudsman's views at an oral pre-session.

Maintain contact with research institutions

The committee proposes that the responsibility of the Children's Ombudsman to monitor research findings be limited to research concerning the Convention on the Rights of the Child and that this task should be confirmed by law. A continuous input of information on research and development work relating to children and young people generally is necessary.

Prepare a book of statistics on children and young people

The committee proposes that the responsibility of the Office of the Children's Ombudsman to compile statistical information on the living conditions of children and young people should be confirmed by law. Statistical data provides the Children's Ombudsman with knowledge about the living conditions of children and young people, information which is of major importance for its task of monitoring compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Collection, compilation and analysis of facts are necessary tools in the work of the Children's Ombudsman.

Children's recreational and outdoor environments

The committee's point of departure is that responsibility for the various issues should rest with the authorities that are responsible for the relevant sector. The responsibility for coordination of child safety matters presently incumbent upon the Children's Ombudsman should therefore be transferred to the National Institute of Public Health and thereby integrated into the Institute's national injury prevention programme. In addition, the committee considers that the responsibility for public playgrounds of the National Board of Housing, Building and Planning and the Swedish Consumer Agency should be more clearly defined so as to include ensuring that play equipment and playgrounds are pedagogically designed in order to stimulate children's creative play. In the same way, the National Institute of Public Health should give attention to both matters concerning safety aspects of children's play environments and the pedagogical content of these environments.

Organisation of the Office of the Children's Ombudsman

It follows from the committee's proposal to strengthen the role of the ombudsman that the aim and direction of activities will be determined by the Office of the Children's Ombudsman itself to a greater extent than is the case today. In part, the committee’s proposals places new demands on the organisation of the Office of the Children's Ombudsman.

The committee among other things proposes that the current provision to the effect that the Office of the Children's Ombudsman shall be assisted by a special council be revoked. Instead, it should be the Ombudsman's responsibility to appoint councils or reference groups in support of the work when needed.

Likewise, the committee proposes that the internal organisation of the Office of the Children's Ombudsman should be more flexible than at present. The Office of the Children's Ombudsman should adopt a more project-oriented approach.

Further copies of the English translation of the summary of the report are available from:

Ministry of Health and Social Affairs
SE-103 33 Stockholm
Sweden
E-mail: tarja.saarinen@social.ministry.se

 

Last edited by Barneombudet March 22, 2004
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