Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Devon County Council’s Local Government Ombudsman Link Officer

I am writing to you with regard to the Communities and Local Government Committee’s inquiry into the Local Government Ombudsman.

Summary

1.Council has constructive working relationship with Ombudsman.

2.Confusion between Ombudsman’s advice team requests and investigators’ “informal enquiries”.

3.Challenging timescales for responses.

4.Inconsistency in the application of timescales for responses.

5.Inconsistency in the formats and addressees in which information requests are sent.

6.Confusion resulting from anonymised information.

7.Lack of triggers for joint investigations with the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

1. Submission

The Council has developed a constructive working relationship with the Local Government Ombudsman and the Council’s staff who handle complaints consult regularly with the Ombudsman’s investigators regarding possible local settlements of complaints while these are still being considered under the local complaints procedure.

There are, however, a few points which I would like to bring to the Committee’s attention.

In general terms, increasingly complex enquiries, especially regarding more complex social care cases or cases where multiple agencies are involved, make it difficult for the Council to provide comprehensive responses within the timescales set by the Ombudsman and in light of the points I set out below.

2 and 3. Types of Enquiries and Challenging Timescales

There seems to be some confusion between what information the Ombudsman’s advice team request and what investigators ask for under “informal enquiries”. The Council receives “informal enquiries” on occasions from investigators where the Ombudsman wishes to establish whether a complaint has been considered under the local procedure. Usually the Council will be asked to fully consider the complaint in question if it has not completed all stages of the local procedure and it will be recorded as premature.

The deadline the Ombudsman sets for informal enquiries is usually ten working days. If the Council has already dealt with a complaint there is a significant amount of information to collate and send to the Ombudsman and this deadline often proves a challenge to achieve.

3 and 4. Inconsistency in Timescales for Responses

The timescale for responses to formal enquiries is 28 days from the date the enquiry letter is received. This timescale does not represent working days, ie it includes weekends and bank holidays. This automatically puts those responses under additional constraint where a number of public holidays occur, eg the Easter or Christmas periods. On one occasion the Council received a formal enquiry at 6:31pm via email and after the Council sought clarification, the investigator confirmed that the day the email was received would count into the 28 day timescale although it was received in the evening. It is my view that all responses to enquiries should benefit from identical timescales.

In some more complex cases, the Council may ask for an extension to the 28 days to provide responses due to the large amount of information which has to be collated, often from different agencies. Even if the Ombudsman agrees an extension, the original deadline of 28 days does not get adjusted. This means the Council gets criticised for breeches of agreed response times in the Ombudsman’s annual letter and report.

Consistency should be applied in the way the Ombudsman sets deadlines both with local authorities and her own investigators. The Council is not aware of any timescales for investigators to consider complaints. In the past, investigators themselves have been delayed and this seems to be acceptable. In one case, the Council provided a response to the Ombudsman on 22 July 2011 and received an email on 4 November 2011 stating that a different investigator had taken on the complaint offering his apologies that he had “not written to [the Council] before now”. In another case, the Council provided a response on 19 December 2011 and received correspondence on 10 February 2012 stating that the investigator was “considering the information”. In yet another case, the investigator wrote to the Council stating that a delay had occurred due to “personal circumstances”.

5. Inconsistency in Information Request Formats

The Ombudsman sends enquiries in electronic format or in hard copy, addressed to the Council’s designated Local Government Ombudsman Link Officer or its Chief Executive and some correspondence is encrypted while some is not. More consistency in the Ombudsman’s correspondence would be desirable, especially in cases where the inconsistency might impact on the Council’s ability to respond to requests within the specified timescales, eg the sending of enquiries to different addressees or with different encryption practices. For example, the Council received an encrypted formal enquiry on 20 June 2011. The Council requested the correspondence in an alternative format as its IT system did not support it. This, combined with the lack of the investigator’s immediate response, led to delays in the response to the enquiry.

6. Anonymising Information

Although the Council appreciates the reasoning behind the Ombudsman’s practice to anonymising her statements of reasons, investigators need to carefully consider the names or initials they chose to represent complainants, involved parties and/or provider organisations in order to avoid confusion. In one case, the name of a residential home had been supposedly anonymised but the name chosen actually denoted a third party residential home within the same local authority area. In another case, the complainant’s name was changed to “Mrs P” but the Council’s officer who signed the complaint response was also a “Mrs P”.

7. Joint investigations

There does not seem to be a clear set of criteria as to what triggers a joint investigation by the Local Government Ombudsman and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. For example, a past complaint was considered by an NHS organisation without the Council’s knowledge. The complainant subsequently complained to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman who ruled that the complaint was outside their jurisdiction and handed it to the Local Government Ombudsman. The Council then dealt with the complaint without having had any prior involvement.

March 2012

Prepared 16th July 2012