MLAs debate if ‘Ombudsman’ is sexually biased – and order research into the word

A snapshot of the debate
A snapshot of the debate

MLAs have engaged in a debate about whether the new commissioner for complaints should be called an ‘ombudsman’ or an ‘ombudsperson’ – and have even commissioned research on the origin of the words themselves.

On Monday the Assembly debated the Public Services Ombudsperson Bill, which after several hours of debate passed further consideration stage.

But an unusual dispute led to a multitude of amendments.

The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which brought forward the bill, had wanted the title of the commissioner to be gender-neutral so had initially described the figure as an ‘ombudsperson’.

However, The Ombudsman Association in London wrote to the committee to express concern about the proposed title for the new office.

The association wrote to MLAs that the term ‘ombudsman’ originated in Scandinavia and means “representative of the people”.

It said that the word did not denote gender and was commonly used across the British Isles.

However, the association said it was “concerned” that the proposal to change the word to “ombudsperson” in Northern Ireland would create “confusion”.

MLAs commissioned a report into the etymology of the word, which confirmed that it is gender-neutral.

The DUP’s Lord Morrow, chairman of the ad hoc committee which has examined the bill, tabled 275 amendments to remove every reference to ‘ombudsperson’ from the bill.

But although Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey accepted that the word is gender-neutral, he said “we believe that there has been an ongoing cultural change in the last number of years whereby people tend to move away from using the word ‘man’, which most people here obviously accept has a gender definition.

“On that basis, we would prefer that the name remained ‘ombudsperson’...it is part of an ongoing, changing cultural public narrative around the use of gender definitions when people are addressed in the civic world.”

Northern Ireland is not alone in grappling with such issues.

Some ombudsman positions in other countries such as the US have removed ‘man’ from the word and not replaced it with ‘person’, simply referring to the individual as an ‘Ombud’.

The bill, which has just one more legislative hurdle to pass in the Assembly before going for Royal Assent, will replace both the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints and the Assembly Ombudsman with a new office of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsperson.

The post will also subsume that of the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Ombudsman.