Children and Families Bill

Memorandum submitted by Local Government Ombudsman (CF 63)

Local Government Ombudsman submission to Public Bills Committee Call for evidence - Children and Families Bill

About the LGO

1. The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) provides an important independent course of redress for injustice to users of local authority services and those delivered on behalf of local authorities. Last year the LGO received over 11,000 complaints from service users from across England, over 4,000 were about the provision of education and children services. This includes complaints such as; local authority provision of special educational needs, complaints against school admission appeals and the transition from child care to adult social care.

2. Our submission is focused on part three of the bill, specifically complaint handling procedures of SEN provision.

Introduction

3. The LGO welcomes the emphasis the Government has placed on administrative justice contained in the Children and Families Bill. Powers for the Children’s Commissioner to investigate complaint procedures available to children and the extensive complaint and appeal mechanisms surrounding Educational and Health Care (EHC) plans demonstrate the important role administrative justice plays in developing good public service delivery.

4. The integration of education, health and social care should develop comprehensive SEN provision, however, it is important that this is supported by a single point of redress for complaints. This issue have been raised by members of public during Public Reading Stage of the Bill and during oral evidence sessions at Committee Stage. We further note that Robert Buckland MP has tabled an amendment to create a single point of redress for complaints through the LGO and Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

5. In our submission the LGO has outlined three areas of the Bill which can be developed further, based on our experience of investigating complaints in this area.

6. We would also like to note that appeal mechanisms in the Bill perform a different purpose than complaints redress processes. Complaint redress review the decision making process but does not retake the decision. Appeal and complaint redress should remain separate and must not be confused. It is important however that effective signposting works between the two systems so users are fully aware of their appropriate course of redress. Our comments below relate to complaint redress mechanisms rather than appeals.

Integration of Education and Health Care Plans

7. The integration of education, health and social care may provide more effective support for children with special educational needs and ensure that families receive consistent care and support across SEN provision. This integration needs to be reflected in the accompanying complaint procedures.

8. The LGO provides the single route of redress for the majority of EHC complaints. The LGO has jurisdiction over the actions of local authorities and all social care providers. Similarly, complaints to LGO that include health care provision can be considered through our statutory powers to conduct a single, joint investigation with the Parliamentary Health Service Ombudsman. The only gap that currently prevents us from providing a complete route of redress for EHC complaints is the lack of jurisdiction over education providers.

9. In the Bill’s current form, education aspects of EHC plans will be subject to different complaint procedures to wider provision, principally through their own internal complaint mechanisms. This separation of education complaints runs counter-intuitive to the Government’s integration agenda and will weaken user’s course of redress. In order to ensure that complaints regarding education are subject to the same mechanisms as the wider EHC plans, the LGO proposes to include all bodies within Part Three of the Bill within the LGO’s jurisdiction for the purposes of SEN provision.

10. As the LGO will already be able to operate as the single course of redress for the vast majority of complaints regarding EHC plans, we believe the Government’s aims of creating a more cohesive SEN system can be better delivered by including the SEN provision of education services within our jurisdiction. The LGO understands the Government’s commitment to maintaining the independence of schools and ensuring that they are accountable to parents and the wider local community. Providing a system which gives parents the right to bring their concerns to the LGO will strengthen their ability to hold schools to account rather than diminish it.

11. There would be a number of benefits to our involvement:

· We have the knowledge and expertise to ensure that solutions can be found to individual problems. Our approach is to ensure that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is avoided and that the needs of the individual are met.

· We can provide an overview of the entire system, ensuring that lessons from one complaint can be used to drive continuous improvements in service delivery.

· From April we will publish all our complaint decisions. Regularly publishing such information will provide an important resource for parents to hold service providers to account.

· We can take a holistic approach, taking into account not only complaints regarding the actions of individual schools but the child’s wider EHC plan.

Local Authority Independent disagreement officer

12. The Bill places a duty on each local authority to appoint an independent officer for the purposes of disagreement resolution (Clause 52(5)). This places an unnecessary administrative burden and will replicate the work of the LGO at an additional cost to public funds. An independent officer in each authority will have limited ability to provide shared learning across the sector. Complaints can be resolved by each local authority using existing complaint procedures. If they remain unresolved complainants then have access to the LGO which provides an independent dispute resolution service. The LGO has many years experience of supporting local complaints handling.

Use of term disagreement

13. We would suggest replacing the term "disagreement" with "complaint" in Section 52. There should be a clear distinction between disagreements contained in section 52, appeals in section 50 and mediation in section 51. As outlined above it is particularly important to ensure a clear understanding between the appeal and redress processes and the use of the term disagreement confuses this distinction.

Conclusion

14. It is important to ensure that families have an independent and effective course of redress. In the Bill’s current form, education aspects of SEN provision sit separately from wider EHC complaint procedures. Extending the jurisdiction of the LGO over bodies contained within section 52(8) for purposes of SEN provision will ensure that users have a single complaint mechanism for all elements of EHC provision and delivery.

March 2013

Prepared 19th April 2013