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Councils reminded about good complaint handling following two Ombudsman investigations

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is reminding local authorities about the importance of good complaint handling after it found significant issues in two councils’ procedures.

The Ombudsman used its powers to investigate wider issues at both LB Islington and the former Cumbria County Council after it uncovered problems with the councils’ complaints processes.

In Islington, an investigation into an initial complaint about antisocial behaviour uncovered the council had a large backlog of stage two corporate complaints, after the council said it would take six months to begin investigating the resident’s complaint. The Ombudsman started a new investigation to look at these delays and found 44 people had open complaints with the council and had already waited significantly longer than they should have.

In Cumbria, in a previous investigation, the Ombudsman found the council had serious delays when conducting stage two of the statutory children’s complaints procedure. The Ombudsman opened a new investigation to consider that issue further and found between October 2021 and October 2022, 12 other complainants had been waiting at least 90 days - significantly longer than the maximum of 65 days the law allows for the process. The Ombudsman issued a guide to councils in 2022 on the Statutory Children’s Complaints process.

Nigel Ellis, Chief Executive at the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:

“When done well, good complaint handling not only restores residents’ faith in their local authorities’ ability to get things right, it also offers an invaluable opportunity for councils to learn from things that have gone wrong and put in place measures to improve their services for others.

“In 2020 we updated our guidance for councils on Good Complaint Handling, and despite the tumultuous changes that have taken place in the intervening three years, getting the basics right – communication, accountability, the desire to improve, and above all keeping the person at the heart of the complaint - is still as important as ever.

“In both cases, the councils have told me that they have struggled to put the resources in place to ensure they were able to cope with the demand. And, while I sympathise with their situations, this can never be an excuse for poor practice.”

LB Islington told the Ombudsman it had since recruited more staff to clear its backlog, commissioned an independent review of its complaint handling processes and had already made significant changes. It has agreed to write to each of the 44 people it has identified who have been affected by the issues and apologise for its delay in responding to their complaints, detailing what it has done to prevent a future backlog and signposting them to the Ombudsman if they remain dissatisfied with the council’s investigation.

Cumbria County Council was disbanded at the end of March 2023. Prior to this it told the Ombudsman it had struggled to recruit staff to complete the investigations within the required timescales. The region’s two new successor councils (Westmorland and Furness Council, and Cumberland Council) have both agreed to write to the people in their regions who have been identified during the investigation but not already approached the Ombudsman.

It is positive that both new councils have recognised this is an opportunity to improve the service. They will apologise for the delays and pay the people affected £25 a month for every month of delay above the 65 working day time period. They will also ensure each complainant is aware of their rights under the statutory children’s complaints procedure.

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