Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Peter Ranken

This memorandum is based on an experience of making a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman and covers the following matters on the work and activities of Local Government Ombudsman in England.

Summary

The arrangements for handling complaints

Lack of overall transparency in the complaint process including refusal to handle all aspects of a complaint and a refusal to give reasons why it would not handle all aspects of a complaint.

The lack of a right of appeal against a decision by or on behalf of the Ombudsman and the lack of an independent process to deal with complaints against the way the Ombudsman has handled a complaint.

The lack of an independent process for taxpayers to question the Local Government Ombudsman as a value for money Government grant funded service in the way it handles complaints.

The adequacy of redress when maladministration is found

Lack of suitable redress for a complainant.

Submissions

Lack of overall transparency in the complaint process including refusal to handle all aspects of a complaint and a refusal to give reasons why it would not handle all aspects of a complaint

In its handling of a complaint, the Local Government Ombudsman says it is not obliged to explore all aspects of a case as requested by a complainant and chooses to ignore issues raised by a complainant that could be central to a case. This does not allow for a fair hearing of the complainant’s case and negates the very reason for the existence of the Ombudsman to provide a fair and just service in investigating complaints against local councils and other bodies. It also does not provide for transparency and clarity in its dealings with members of the public who, as taxpayers, fund the Ombudsman through a government grant.

The following evidence supports the above statement:

In a published letter dated 9 December 2011 (Exhibit “A”), Richard Shaw, an Assistant Ombudsman states:

“the Ombudsman is not required to address every point a complainant might raise and I do not consider it necessary or appropriate to have pursued this matter…”. “It does not appear to be central…”.

The matter in question referred to the fact Council Officers had admitted to the Independent Adjudicator investigating the complainant’s complaint on behalf of the Council in question, that they gave her false information as to why they did not carry out a request by Mayor and Cabinet to support the complainant which the Independent Adjudicator confirmed in writing to the complainant.

When the Assistant Ombudsman was asked why, despite there being irrefutable evidence that Council Officers lied to the Independent Adjudicator, he refused to investigate and why such an action was not central, he replied in an email dated 27 February 2012 (Exhibit “B”):

“The Deputy Ombudsman has considered what you have said, but does not consider a response is necessary. As you have been told, your case is closed and we cannot assist you further”.

This evidence clearly shows that the Local Government Ombudsman behaves in a totally arbitrary way in handling complaints and does not provide an unbiased and transparent assessment of the facts. Irrespective of the merits of the case as a whole there was irrefutable evidence from an inscrutable source that Council Officers lied and attempted to cover up why they had not carried out instructions from Mayor and Cabinet which amounted to maladministration and seriously affected the complainant. Yet the evidence shows the Ombudsman ignored the evidence and refused to investigate and refused to give the complainant a reason why he would not investigate.

The public are misled into believing they will receive a fair and just hearing of their case which is clearly not so. This therefore questions why the Local Government Ombudsman exists as a taxpayer funded service designed to support the taxpayer in fair and just way with complaints against local government bodies as it clearly does not do and, by not doing so, is wasting both public money and taxpayers’ time.

The lack of a right of appeal against a decision by or on behalf of the Ombudsman and the lack of an independent process to deal with complaints against the way the Ombudsman has handled a complaint

In a response to the complainant challenging an Investigator’s report and requesting the right to appeal against its findings, the Assistant Ombudsman states in a letter dated 26 November 2011(Exhibit “C”):

“There is no right of appeal against a decision by or on behalf of the Ombudsman, but I have reviewed matters in accordance with our usual procedures”.

The Local Government Ombudsman’s website states that it has the same powers as the High Court to obtain information and documents yet, unlike the High Court, it does not have an appeals procedure.

Its usual procedure is a complaints procedure which is undertaken by Local Government Ombudsman staff. An Assistant Ombudsman will investigate a complaint into an Investigator’s report and there will be no further recourse against the Assistant Ombudsman’s review of the complaint. Any complaint by a complainant against the way the Local Government Ombudsman has handled a complaint is then handled internally by the Ombudsman which investigates itself. Complaints are not investigated by an independent source and therefore the complaints process cannot be seen to be fair and unbiased, unlike the appeals system in the High Court.

The only other recourse a complainant has, is to seek a judicial review, but this would only be on the basis that the reasoning for the Local Government Ombudsman not upholding a complaint is legally flawed.

Seeking a judicial review is an expensive process which is way beyond the means of an ordinary member of the public and based on the evidence provided in this memorandum, refusing to handle aspects of a complaint and not giving reasons for the refusal is not based on a legal premise.

A complainant is therefore powerless to seek additional recourse if he/she is unhappy with the nature of the investigation as the Local Government Ombudsman is only accountable to itself and does not provide a fair service or spend public money effectively, as it claims on its website.

The lack of an independent process for taxpayers to question the Local Government Ombudsman as a value for money Government grant funded service in the way it handles complaints

By handling complaints the way it does and being only accountable to itself, the Local Government Ombudsman is not regulated to ensure it is providing the service it claims to provide and is good value for money.

There is no process that allows the taxpayer to question the capability of the organisation and the ability of its staff, who are allowed to make decisions without providing the reasoning behind those decisions. This is dangerous as it allows staff to reduce caseloads through dismissing cases without proper investigation and to make subjective, arbitrary decisions knowing the complainant has no recourse to an independent opinion.

The taxpayer funds the Local Government Ombudsman, yet there is no way for the taxpayer to hold the Local Government Ombudsman accountable for its actions or non-actions and whether it is being run efficiently and providing the service it is required to do to the taxpayer.

Lack of suitable redress for a complainant

The Local Government Ombudsman cannot make bodies do what it recommends if maladministration is found, which means complainants cannot seek immediate enforcement of a decision if a body decides not to adopt the Local Government Ombudsman’s recommendations.

If the matter is a serious one such as involving losses of livelihoods due to council officers’ maladministration, without the power of enforcement any decision becomes meaningless, as the body will not seek to provide remedy to the complainant who will have to resort to the Courts to obtain enforcement, which in most cases he/she will not be able to afford. This therefore negates the purpose of the Ombudsman.

Conclusion

From the evidence submitted in this memorandum, I would ask the Communities and Local Government Parliamentary Committee to recommend the following when examining the workings of the Local Government Ombudsman:

1.That the Local Government Ombudsman’s arrangements for handling complaints are made transparent and clear and do not allow for officials to make arbitrary decisions that they are not accountable for.

2.That the Ombudsman is required to respond to all a complainant’s requests for information and not be able refuse to answer without providing a reason.

3.That an appeal procedure to investigate complaints against the Ombudsman is set up independently of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman is bound by any decision through such procedure.

4.That the Local Government Ombudsman is accountable to all taxpayers through regulation to ensure it is providing a fair and efficient service and is not wasting taxpayers’ money.

Peter Ranken

3 March 2012

Prepared 16th July 2012