The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) provides a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice, and that a person has suffered as a result, the Ombudsmen aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy. The LGO also uses the findings from investigation work to help authorities provide better public services through initiatives such as special reports, training and annual reviews.
Section 1: Complaints about Bath and North East Somerset Council 2008/09
This annual review provides a summary of the complaints we have dealt with about Bath and North East Somerset Council. We have included comments on the authority's performance and complaint-handling arrangements, where possible, so they can assist with your service improvement.
I hope that the review will be a useful addition to other information your authority holds on how people experience or perceive your services.
Two appendices form an integral part of this review: statistical data for 2008/09 and a note to help the interpretation of the statistics.
Changes to our way of working and statistics
A change in the way we operate means that the statistics about complaints received in 2008/09 are not directly comparable with those from 2007/08. Since 1 April 2008 the new LGO Advice Team has been the single point of contact for all enquiries and new complaints. The number of calls to our service has increased significantly since then. It handles more than 2,000 calls a month, together with written and emailed complaints. Our advisers now provide comprehensive information and advice to callers at the outset with a full explanation of the process and possible outcomes. It enables callers to make a more informed decision about whether putting their complaint to us is an appropriate course of action. Some decide to pursue their complaint direct with the council first.
It means that direct comparisons with some of the previous year's statistics are difficult and could be misleading. So this annual review focuses mainly on the 2008/09 statistics without drawing those comparisons.
Enquiries and complaints received
Our Advice Team received 39 complaints and enquiries during the year. Of these three were about adult care services and two were about children and family services, two concerned education matters, three were about public finance including local taxation, 21 were about planning related matters, two were in the transport and highways category, there was one complaint each in the housing and benefits category and the remaining four were in the Other category.
We treated 13 of those complaints and enquiries as premature and in a further three cases advice was given (usually to make a complaint direct to the Council). The remaining 23 complaints were forwarded to the investigative team - 18 as new complaints and five as premature complaints that had been resubmitted.
I decided 26 complaints during the year. In 13 of those cases (50%) I found no evidence of maladministration. I used my discretion not to investigate a further four cases (15.4%) mainly because I considered the injustice claimed by the complainant was too insignificant to pursue. In four cases (which represents 15.4% of all my decisions made in the year) I took the view that the matters complained about were outside my jurisdiction and so they were not investigated. I issued one report and four local settlements were agreed.
When we complete an investigation, I generally issue a report. This year I issued one report against the Council. A resident complained that she was not notified of a planning application to demolish a neighbouring one storey property and replace it with a modern two storey house. She was deprived of the opportunity to submit objections to the development. I took the view that any objections she may have submitted would not have altered the outcome of the application. However, I recognised her sense of outrage from being improperly deprived of the right to have her say, and the Council agreed to pay her a total of £1,250 to reflect this.
A 'local settlement' is a complaint where, during the course of our investigation, a council takes or agrees to take some action that we consider to be a satisfactory response to the complaint. In 2008/09, 27.4% of all complaints the Ombudsmen decided and which were within our jurisdiction were local settlements. Of the complaints we decided against your Council four were decided as local settlements (15.4%).
Three of the local settlements related to complaints about planning and building control. In one case the Council delayed in taking enforcement action for 18 months. By the time I considered the complaint the Council had put the matter to Committee and agreed to take enforcement action. It apologised and paid the complainant £750 in recognition of the distress caused by its delay.
In another case, the Council failed to determine a planning application which had been submitted in 2003. As a result the Council had limited powers to take enforcement action against the development. The Council paid the complainant £500 to recognise her sense of outrage.
In the third planning case, the Council did not properly communicate with an agent and failed to act on the request to withdraw an application. The Council apologised for this and updated its procedures for dealing with requests to withdraw planning applications.
One settlement concerned transport and highway matters. Complaining on behalf of himself and several residents, the complainant was concerned with the installation of traffic calming near their homes. They felt that the speed ramp was not installed in accordance with the specifications and that as a result was unreasonably noisy. While my investigation was ongoing, a compromise agreement was reached between the Council and the residents to replace the approach ramps to lessen the noise.
The Council agreed to pay a total of £2,500 compensation in respect of complaints I determined this year. I am grateful to the Council for its help in settling these complaints.
Liaison with the Local Government Ombudsman
Formal enquiries were made on 17 complaints during the year. Your Council's average response time of 24.6 days is less than last year's time and is now inside the 28 days requested. We are grateful for good response times as this benefits all parties involved. I thank you for your efforts in achieving the target response time.
I was pleased to welcome two of your officers to a seminar I held for link officers. I hope that they found it useful.
Training in complaint handling
Part of our role is to provide advice and guidance about good administrative practice. We offer training courses for all levels of local authority staff in complaints handling and investigation. All courses are presented by experienced investigators. They give participants the opportunity to practise the skills needed to deal with complaints positively and efficiently. We can also provide customised courses to help authorities to deal with particular issues and occasional open courses for individuals from different authorities.
I welcome this opportunity to give you my reflections about the complaints my office has dealt with over the past year. I hope that you find the information and assessment provided useful when seeking improvements of the Council's services.
Section 2: LGO developments
The annual review also provides an opportunity to bring councils up to date on developments - current and proposed - in the LGO and to seek feedback. It includes our proposal to introduce a 'statement of reasons' for Ombudsmen decisions.
From 1 April 2009, the LGO has considered complaints only where the council's own complaints procedure has been completed. Local authorities have been informed of these new arrangements, including some notable exceptions. We will carefully monitor the impact of this change during the course of the year.
Statement of reasons: consultation
The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 made provision for the LGO to publish statements of reasons relating to the individual decisions of an Ombudsman following the investigation of a complaint. The Ombudsmen are now consulting local government on their proposal to use statements of reasons. The proposal is that these will comprise a short summary (about one page of A4) of the complaint, the investigation, the findings and the recommended remedy. The statement, naming the council but not the complainant, would usually be published on our website.
We plan to consult local authorities on the detail of these statements with a view to implementing them from October 2009.
Making Experiences Count (MEC)
The new formal, one stage complaint handling arrangement for adult social care was also introduced from 1 April 2009. The LGO is looking to ensure that this formal stage is observed by complainants before the Ombudsmen will consider any such complaint, although some may be treated as exceptions under the Council First approach. The LGO also recognises that during the transition from the existing scheme to the new scheme there is going to be a mixed approach to considering complaints as some may have originated before 1 April 2009. The LGO will endeavour to provide support, as necessary, through dedicated events for complaints-handling staff in adult social care departments.
Training in complaint handling
Effective Complaint Handling in Adult Social Care is the latest addition to our range of training courses for local authority staff. This adds to the generic Good Complaint Handling (identifying and processing complaints) and Effective Complaint Handling (investigation and resolution), and courses for social care staff at both of these levels. Demand for our training in complaint handling remains high. A total of 129 courses were delivered in 2008/09. Feedback from participants shows that they find it stimulating, challenging and beneficial in their work in dealing with complaints.
Adult Social Care Self-funding
The Health Bill 2009 proposes for the LGO to extend its jurisdiction to cover an independent complaints-handling role in respect of self-funded adult social care. The new service will commence in 2010.
Internal schools management
The Apprenticeship, Skills, Children and Learning Bill (ASCL) 2009 proposes making the LGO the host for a new independent complaints-handling function for schools. In essence, we would consider the complaint after the governing body of the school had considered it. Subject to legislation, the new service would be introduced, in pilot form, probably in September 2010.
I hope this information gives you an insight into the major changes happening within the LGO, many of which will have a direct impact on your local authority. We will keep you up to date through LGO Link as each development progresses but if there is anything you wish to discuss in the meantime please let me know.
J.R. White, Local Government Ombudsman
The Oaks, No. 2 Westwood Way, Westwood Business Park, Coventry. CV4 8JB