Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Sandhya Dass

1. Quality of Work by the Ombudsman’s Investigators:

There is no requirement to provide referenced sources as to the law, documentary or other evidence or facts used to come to a decision. FOI requests do not achieve this, as experience indicates that LGO investigators do not make a list of the evidence considered by them. This could make it very difficult for a claimant to assess whether the complaint had been understood correctly if particularly complex, to determine which evidence was used and whether the decision appears to reflect the evidence provided by the complainant. These matters create difficulties to determine whether to challenge a decision through judicial review where claimants resources/time are limited.

There is no requirement for the LGO staff to pass on in a timely manner the information from contact made with and enqueries of the local authority in dispute with the claimant. A failure to provide timely information will make it more difficult and lengthy for the complainant to refute any element of information provided should further sources of information be required to do so.

There is no external independent academic/legal scrutiny of complaints/evidence used/laws applied in cases/decisions, ie audits to assess quality and consistency in approach across teams/offices in LGO investigation work. It is assumed it is robust by government, because there is no “political involvement”.

Refer as an example to:

The Case of Mr and Mrs Wain verses Stoke-on-Trent City Council especially the report from the independent barrister.

As well educated claimant with professional knowledge of the subject area of my complaint to the LGO I found the same matter of very poor work by an investigator and her assistant ombudsman. I raised the matter in a very detailed letter directly to Jane Martin. Following a subsequent formal complaint I was confronted with the same poor work again, showing documents had not been read or understood. It was not possible then to take up a judicial review because the decision was not changed, so fell outside of the time limit for JR. This is not helpful to claimants raising maladministration by local authorities.

Independent assessment by external independent skilled auditors (not ex-local authority personnel) for complainants is required as regards the quality of work of the Local Government Ombudsman in cases that are challenged.

The period for Judicial Review application should be extended for complaints about LGO decision. Many people such as carers in adult social care disputes will not manage this timeframe, unless a lawyer has already been involved at either public or personal expense. In which case the LGO not paying for people to have legal representation to make complex complaints becomes an issue.

2. Sources of Evidence for LGO Investigations

For evidence to support a case of maladministration injustice The LGO website states: “We have the same powers as the High Court to obtain information and documents”.

Very recently I called and spoke to someone called Val Stevens, (and then the investigator she passed me onto), in the Coventry LGO office and asked about this. I asked to be definitively told whether sources of information other than from the Council records are considered in an investigation. I tape recorded the call, in which it is very clear that the question was evaded completely, so very irritatingly I had no answer.

Evidence in the statement of reasons given by the investigator making the decision on my case was that no evidence other than that given by the local authority had been considered.

I would ask for independent audit of cases, selected by the auditor, to seek to ascertain what evidence actually is used in each office and to get clarification on the website so that potential claimants are not misled.

3. The Cost of the LGO/Its Effectiveness

The LGO themselves undertake limited surveys about the experiences of a few claimants. This is not an independent process, and the results do not explain the improbable, statistically, consistent low proportion of injustice reports, etc on a year by year basis.

Lambeth Council for the last two years or more has had the greatest/near greatest number of residents complaining to the LGO nationally of any local authority. The maladministration reports raised for Lambeth do not reflect this.

A national LGO service is not the most cost effective, modern way of dealing with 25,000 complaints yearly to 3 offices from diverse areas of the country, nor can local authority behaviours change with a centralised process. A single investigator is not a suitable model for claimants.

As with many other areas where local issues are addressed locally, local (possibly virtual) panels with diverse skilled (eg academic legal) people with no conflict of interest in regards to local authorities might be better used to assess the cases locally in confidence, allowing personal representation by claimants if required. There would be no office/pension costs etc. of regular employment for such panels. This could raise public confidence in the process dealt with currently by the LGO, where few people know of it and are possibly discouraged by the low number of public reports made by it, unless advised to use it by say CAB/lawyer.

A root and branch review of the LGO- as to whether it is fit for modern purpose is the only way forward for the public purse and greater accountability of local authorities for their decisions.

Sandhya Dass

March 2012

Prepared 16th July 2012