Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten submission from Children Need Families

The position of Children Need Families is that recently we have had cause to contact the Local Government Ombudsman with regard to making a formal complaint about the London Borough of Hounslow council, following their poor treatment of two customers, both of whom are vulnerable—one in particular is vulnerable: she is 19 years old, with a section 21 notice issued, and is expecting a baby and has complications.

The London Borough of Hounslow failed to address the concerns of the two clients of Children Need Families, and as such Children Need Families, on behalf of the two referred to, made formal complaints as instructed. The London Borough of Hounslow adopted a position of asserting that Children Need Families was not a bona fide organisation, despite the fact that they knew we had been around for 12 years, and had been supporting the customers involved for the best part of two years—none the less, they asserted that we were not a reputable organisation, and instructed all at the council to have nothing to do with us, including their arm’s-length services, Liberata, who deliver their benefits administration.

In particular, Mr Robert Della-Sala, who is the head of customer services, wrote a letter to Children Need Families asking us questions, all of which were answered by our chairman, Mr Paul Holmes. Despite our answering all those questions, the London Borough of Hounslow maintained their position that Children Need Families is not a credible organisation.

Somewhere in between that point, Children Need Families began a formal complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman, and as such we submitted audio, papers and a written submission, setting out our complaint about the London Borough of Hounslow. At one point between that complaint being submitted, [***] contacted one of our officers, Councillor Cope, who lives in the Devon area, with a view to having a secretive meeting with him, which they did not want the rest of Children Need Families to know about. We viewed these matters as extremely serious, and as the council had now made its position clear that it would not deal with the complaints, we were left with no option but to go forward with the Local Government Ombudsman.

The Local Government Ombudsman received all our audio, papers, etc., and somewhere along that line lost the audio and other bits of paperwork. Eventually, we resolved that matter and the case was assigned to a handler, who then wrote to us saying that he did not understand what the complaint was about, and from there we attempted to contact the handler. When we contacted him to get him to explain why he could not understand it—because it was quite simple what this was about: both the evidence and the paperwork make it clear that this was a complaint about the London Borough of Hounslow, regarding its failure to investigate complaints—he none the less maintained that position, and Children Need Families challenged it. The gentleman concerned was rude and unhelpful, so we then set about trying to speak to his appropriate managers.

That is when the problem becomes extremely complicated. We are told that when you are dissatisfied with somebody you should escalate the call to the appropriate manager, and CNF attempted to do that. At every stage through that conversation, we were thwarted, and it became evident that nobody was going to deal with our concerns. Looking at the telephone logs that we kept, between 17 April 2012 to date, Children Need Families has repeatedly asked senior figures, including Dr Jane Martin, to contact us.

On one occasion, on 18 April 2012, we contacted Mr Richard Shaw, who is the Assistant Ombudsman. In particular, the chief legal officer for Children Need Families—myself—asked the Local Government Ombudsman to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010, regulation 20, and Mr Shaw refused to do that, insisting that I had to tell him what it was I needed the adjustments for. I was embarrassed by this, I felt humiliated, and frankly, they clearly do not follow the common law as it currently stands by making somebody that uncomfortable in that situation.

I then asked to speak to Mr Shaw’s boss who, he told me, was Mr Jones. I then contacted Mr Jones and left messages for him via his PA, Miss Gorwola, between 18 April and 2 May. I left messages for Dr Martin to no effect, and then Children Need Families received an email from the Local Government Ombudsman telling us that they had no intention of contacting us.

Clearly, from the perspective of Children Need Families, this situation is ridiculous. The Local Government Ombudsman is there to investigate complaints and concerns about local councils, when they are seen not to be following their legal obligations. It is now the situation that the Local Government Ombudsman was not investigating that, and bearing in mind that the person appointed to deal with the case told us that he could not, he has now mysteriously conducted the investigation, despite our trying to make challenges about what was going on, and has concluded against Children Need Families, asserting that the London Borough of Hounslow did no wrong, and that simply because they asserted that we were aggressive, that point stood.

That suggests to us as an organisation that the Local Government Ombudsman operated with prejudice and bias. They clearly do not operate with diversity; they clearly do not follow common law; and there is no real chain of accountability, despite how they are all structured and paid. It is absolutely a disgrace in our view that the Local Government Ombudsman has behaved like this. However, this is not an isolated incident with Children Need Families. In our previous dealings with the Local Government Ombudsman three years ago, we had very similar behaviour, where they lost paperwork, and when you tried to speak to people they would not assist you, and then eventually they closed it down, leaving that set of complaints unresolved, effectively allowing those who are being complained about to continue doing what they were doing and never being held to account.

I appreciate that this is very little in a very big pool, but the fact of the matter is that, considering that the Local Government Ombudsman has recently been given an account of itself in terms of endemic failure, Children Need Families would consider that this is another element of that failure, and we are concerned that the vulnerable are being left without any representation because of the conduct and the behaviour of the Local Government Ombudsman.

May 2012

Prepared 16th July 2012