Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten Submission by Sheila Robb

1. Brief Introduction

1.1 My name is Sheila Robb and I act on behalf of my two elder brothers and myself. We are all the children of the late Emma Jane Turnbull who died on the 3 November 2011, within Hillside Lodge Nursing Home, Berwick upon Tweed, where she had been residing for preceding 10 months.

1.2 Following her death my family lodged a formal Complaint with Northumberland County Council (NCC) regarding issues surrounding their staff and the resulting impact on our late Mothers finances; other conduct by her Care Manager and her immediate Supervisor, which we deemed unacceptable; and serious recurring “Communications Issues” within the NCC which were avoidable and caused unnecessary distress to my elder brother who was undergoing treatment for cancer, and adversely impacted on his health. Thankfully, none of these issues impacted directly on our late Mother’ actual healthcare within the private nursing home, which was excellent and commendable.

1.3 In our opinion the NCC failed or refused to take our complaint seriously; failed or refused to make proper enquiry into the matter; failed or refused to address the numerous “issues of concern” that we raised; failed to answer numerous important questions asked by our family; failed or refused to provide the related guidelines, protocols, criteria, complaint regulations, and job description requested by our family; failed or refused to accept and address the catalogue of recurring communication issues within their organisation; failed or refused to initiate internal discipline procedures in respect of their Care Manager; and failed or refused to offer financial compensation to our family for the healthcare costs wrongly incurred, which were directly attributable to their Care Manager.

1.4 Due to our dissatisfaction with our treatment by NCC, my family turned to the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) expecting our Complaint regarding our treatment by the NCC to be properly, impartially, and independently, investigated and considered.

1.5 Prior to continuing, I would add that I have not tried to detail aspects of our individual Complaint, but have found it necessary to detail briefly some background information about it, by way of qualifying and providing reasons for our viewpoints, recommendations, and coments.

2. Summary of Events

2.1 On 20 February 2012, a Complaint was lodged electronically with the LGO detailing the above information, and intimating that a “Chronological List of Correspondence” was available in which the various documents essential to the case could be found and examined. Our Complaint was allocated to the LGO at York and an Investigator was appointed.

2.2 A letter was then received from the Investigator, without any interim contact by him, intimating his assessment and opinion, namely:

“For these reasons there is NO prospect of the Ombudsman pursuing this matter further”.

Please note the Investigator’s use the definite word “no”, rather than opting for a more open word such as “unlikely”, which provided a clear indication of his “mindset”.

2.3 Apparently he had obtained the NCC’s account of the circumstances without affording us an equal opportunity, but had also chosen not to make any other enquiry with independent third parties. Furthermore he appeared to accept the NCC’s account of the circumstances as factual and accurate without trying to verify any of it, either with us or third parties, namely staff at the private Nursing Home or our late Mother’s own Doctor, who could have substantiated our allegations. The Investigator had not obtained the documents on the “Chronological List of Correspondence” from us, which would have assisted him in making a more balanced and fair assessment. In addition he had totally ignored other serious aspects of our Complaint and failed to address them, including the NCC’s failure to address issues adversely impacting on the service provided to the public, namely:

Inter-agency communication and information sharing; and

Identification of non-engagement/non-compliance with services resulting in the person not being seen.

These two key themes were also identified as principle factors in the Significant Case Review of 21 February 2012, by Renfrewshire Council into the Death of Declan Hainey. The entire Review, which I have read is informative and available on the Internet in “pdf” format. Sadly with tragic consequences for the young boy in question, it highlighted how problem areas can have serious outcomes, if they are not accepted and addressed properly by Local Government.

2.4 In brief we formed the opinion that the Investigator lacked the basic skills associated with his role as an Investigator within the LGO, showed bias in favour of NCC, had made very little effort or enquiry, and consequently we had lost all trust and confidence in ability to deal with our Complaint in a proper and impartial manner. In our view he was trying to “write off” our Complaint with as little time, effort, and enquiry, as possible, in a similar manner to how the NCC had done earlier to my family’s Complaint.

2.5 We then requested that the LGO replace him as the Investigator for our Complaint but his Supervisor refused our request, despite us pointing out that his decision was contrary to the fundamental principles of fairness and impartiality. The Supervisor also intimated that the Investigator in question had experience in “adult social care”, but failed to expand on any experience that he may have claimed to have as an Investigator.

2.6 I then asked my husband to review all the relevant correspondence relating to our Complaint and provide me with his expert assessment and advice. My husband is a retired Police Officer having spent the majority of his public service within the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), managing, investigating, and reporting, serious criminal enquiries. In addition he held a supervisory rank within the Police and was directly responsible for training Police Officers entering the CID, to ensure that they became competent Investigators. In view of this background and experience, he is qualified to comment on the thoroughness of enquiries and the competence of investigators. He confirmed our view that the Investigator from the LGO was either unwilling or unable to investigate our complaint in a proper, fair, and impartial manner. Furthermore he was appalled by the poor standard of the investigation, which fell well short of acceptable, clearly showed that the Investigator lacked basic skills, and that he had failed to follow obvious lines of enquiry to obtain evidence about the truth of the matter under investigation. I appreciate that other members of the public, who were dissatisfied with the LGO, would not have had access to similar expert opinion and assessment to support their views.

2.7 In view of the forgoing circumstances, there was no point in our family pursuing our Complaint any further with the LGO, so for record purposes and completeness, we were forced to formally withdraw it.

2.8 Concerned by our treatment by the LGO, I then made further enquiry using the Internet to establish if our concerns was an isolated incident, one of only a few, or if the problem was more widespread. I was shocked and astounded at the vast number of people who had similar concerns regarding the LGO, which is indicative of an Organisation not functioning properly and in crisis. In my view the Senior Management of the LGO should bear considerable responsibility for its failures.

2.9 It was at this juncture, I became aware that Commons Select Committee was making enquiry into the operation of the LGO, and hopefully they will be able take positive action in the near future to rectify, or replace, the LGO. We then decided to make a written submission to the Committee regarding our family’s treatment by the LGO.

3. Family Viewpoints, Observations, and Comments:

3.1The LGO are not operating in an independent and impartial manner

3.2The LGO are failing to provide the public with an acceptable service

3.3The annual cost to the public to fund the LGO is not providing value for money. According to their Annual Accounts for the last 3 years, the LGO cost the public 40 million pounds in operating costs. In the present climate of austerity this drain on the public purse cannot be justified

3.4The LGO lack any public accountability, which allows them to operate out-with acceptable standards, with no recourse to the public. All LGO staff, at every level, are aware of this fact, thereby allowing them to act with impunity.

3.5The LGO do not follow the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights in respect of treating individuals with fairness, and in accordance with natural justice.

3.6The LGO do not follow the fundamental principles used in all other forms of Justice in this country

3.7The LGO do not have any independent “Appeals” system which can be used by the public if they disagree with the outcome of a Complaint, only a costly Judicial Review option, which is beyond the financial reach of most people

3.8The LGO normally recruit from Local Government, which can adversely impact on impartiality and independence issues

3.9The LGO should employ experienced Investigators, not people with experience in other areas. Experienced investigators could seek the guidance of experts in another field, should the particular enquiry dictate that it is required to be done.

3.10The LGO shows bias and positive discrimination in favour of Local Government

3.11Local Governments are aware of how the LGO operate and consequently they are unconcerned about Complaints made to the LGO by the public, because they know in advance that it is highly unlikely that any action will be taken, giving them a degree of impunity.

3.12The LGO fail to identify poor administration within Local Government and miss the opportunity to improve it, thereby failing to improve the quality of service given to the public. This was clearly evident in my family’s own complaint where “Inter-agency communication and information sharing”, and “Identification of non-engagement/non-compliance with services resulting in the person not being seen”, formed part of it.

3.13The LGO arrangements for handling Complaints is extremely poor, because in their haste to dismiss them, without carrying out an adequate and proper enquiry, they fail to identify and address important issues in the Complaint, leaving the public feeling exasperated and frustrated

3.14The LGO do not act on poor feedback from the public, but choose to ignore it, with the assumption that it is either wrong, or malicious in nature.

3.15A Survey should be commissioned by an Independent Body to carry out a survey with members of the public who have made a Complaint to the LGO and are unsatisfied with the service, to confirm and establish the true extent of the problem.

3.16The LGO Investigators are unable or unwilling to carry out enquiries in a proper, impartial, and professional manner

3.17Supervisors within the LGO are aware that Investigators are unable or unwilling to carry out enquiries in a proper, impartial, and professional manner, but choose to do nothing about it.

3.18Supervisors within the LGO fail to grasp the fundamental principles of fairness and impartiality, which is an essential if they are to carry out their role properly.

3.19Senior staff within the LGO are aloof and refuse to deal directly with the public leaving junior staff to act on their behalf, with their vicarious authority.

3.20Senior Staff within the LGO are being grossly overpaid which is reflected in their Annual Accounts, some of whom are being paid in the region of £125,000. Such wages just cannot be justified for staff employed in the public sector

3.21 Senior Staff within the LGO should be taken to account for the failures of the organisation. In the private sector, Senior Staff are dismissed quickly for such failures by owners, or shareholders. Standards and policies come from the top of an organisation and are passed down through the various ranks within it.

4. Recommendations for Action

4.1 Given the growing public concern regarding the LGO, it is clear that the serious internal problems are now at crisis level, and that Senior Management is failing to address and rectify the situation internally. Alarm bells should be ringing loudly within Parliament about this crisis, and the time has now come to take drastic and positive action to deal with it.

4.2 The LGO are no longer “fit for purpose”, and are now little more than a very costly mistake, designed to appease the public rather than resolve Complaints properly, and consequently the LGO should be disbanded as a matter of urgency.

4.3 It should be replaced with an Organisation staffed by experienced professionals, totally independent of Local Government, who can competently carry out the role of investigators and adjudicators in an efficient and effective manner, thereby providing value for money to the public, and providing an acceptable service.

Sheila Robb

May 2012

Prepared 16th July 2012