Councils urged to ensure complaints about contractors are handled properly
Councils need to assure themselves that complaints investigations carried out by their contractors are conducted rigorously, the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) is advising.
Whether the service contract is for adult social care, leisure services or, in a case issued this week, debt recovery, councils cannot simply accept at face value the outcome of a complaint review conducted by firms acting on their behalf.
In the most recent case, the LGO found that Bury Metropolitan Borough Council ignored body camera evidence when investigating a complaint against a firm of bailiffs it employs to chase a council tax debt.
The firm, Rossendales, exonerated its bailiff and the LGO’s investigation found the council should have taken more thorough steps to review the complaint before agreeing with the company’s version of events.
The LGO investigation was instigated by a complaint from a homeowner who had allowed a friend, whose home had been repossessed, to stay with him. The friend owed tax to Bury council, which sent Rossendales to the homeowner’s house. The friend told the bailiff that none of the property was his, but the bailiff did not believe him.
The friend phoned the homeowner and a solicitor who both went to the property. When questioned, the bailiff refused to identify himself, contrary to the code of conduct. The bailiff also refused to discuss the situation in front of the solicitor for ‘data protection issues’ and was rude, aggressive and insulting.
The bailiff threatened to take items belonging to the homeowner and so he paid his friend’s debt under significant duress.
The men complained to Rossendales and had to chase numerous times for a response. Despite the bailiff wearing a body-mounted camera, the firm failed to acknowledge the action recorded, and a subsequent review of the complaint by Bury council did not look at the footage.
It was not until the LGO investigated that the recordings were found to agree with the men’s version of events.
The LGO investigation found that the bailiff refused ‘to exercise any common sense’ in dealing with the men and breached a number of parts of the Bailiff Code of Practice.
The investigation also found the council’s complaint investigation was inadequate, and “relied on Rossendales’ own word that the complaint should not be upheld”.
Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said:
“The law is clear: it says that the actions of any firm contracted shall be treated as actions of or on behalf of the council. This means that when a complaint arises, councils have a duty to make sure that it is investigated rigorously, fairly and independently, taking into account all evidence available.
“We are urging councils to consider how they integrate their own complaints policies into contracts with external companies so that complaints are dealt with effectively and to ensure that the council maintains oversight.
“We would also encourage councillors to scrutinise the contracting and commissioning arrangements of their local authorities so they can be satisfied that there are effective and appropriate complaints arrangements in place.”
To remedy the complaint, Bury council has been asked to apologise to the homeowner and refund the money paid by him on behalf of the man, who has since died. It should also pay him an additional £250 in recognition of the distress its actions caused.
The council should also:
- Write off any remaining council tax owed by the man’s estate
- Apologise to the solicitor and pay him £250 for the distress caused by the bailiff
- Adopt as its policy to review video footage shot by bailiffs where available and review its current approach to the seizure of third party goods by bailiffs.
- Provide satisfactory proof that Rossendales has addressed with its bailiffs those parts of the Greater Manchester Consortium agreement and Code of Conduct that were not followed on this occasion and;
- Provide evidence that the firm has taken action to ensure all its bailiffs know the importance of the Code covering courtesy, identification, proper adherence to Data Protection Act principles, and the correct approach to seizure of third party goods.
The LGO is still awaiting the confirmation required to be satisfied the council has met all the recommendations.
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