Neil Merrick 09 October 2018

A sign of cutting corners?

More people are complaining about local government. Both ombudsmen in charge of investigating complaints against councils received more complaints in 2017/18 than the previous year and there is a stronger likelihood of these being upheld.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman received 17,452 complaints last year, up from 16,823 the year before. While fewer detailed investigations were carried out, 57% of these led to the complaint being upheld, up from 54%.

The Housing Ombudsman, which oversees social landlords, received 2,067 complaints against local authorities (up from 1,741). Maladministration was found in 29% of determinations involving councils, up from 28% in 2016-17.

Local Government Ombuds-man Michael King says the grievances investigated by his office are more serious than before, with many involving systemic failure rather than just poor service for individuals.

This is often down to councils cutting corners or looking for cheaper ways to deliver services, including outsourcing. ‘Increasingly the complaints we uphold are about systemic error driven by local authorities looking to save money,’ he says. ‘We are finding local authorities telling us they can’t do things in the way they want because they don’t have the resources.’

Social care and homelessness have taken over from planning as the services most likely to feature in complaints. It is not unusual for councils to be criticised over charges for adult social care or for education, health and care plans drawn up for children with special educational needs.

Homelessness complaints may uncover people living in Dickensian conditions, says King, as well as councils colluding with landlords over unlawful evictions.

‘There are small district councils that are not used to dealing with this,’ he adds.

About one third of determinations by the Housing Ombudsman in 2017/18 involved councils. Thirty-nine per cent of complaints against local authorities were upheld, compared with 44% made against housing associations.

Councils and housing associations had predicted an increase in complaints due to welfare cuts and reduced rent income. Last month’s social housing green paper calls on social landlords to investigate and resolve grievances sooner.

The ombudsman is encouraging landlords to improve procedures, so complaints by tenants are more likely to be resolved internally. ‘Where people see complaints procedures working, they’re more inclined to use them,’ says interim Housing Ombudsman David Connolly.

By and large, says Michael King, councils against which complaints are upheld ‘take it on the chin’ and make efforts to improve. In May, North Tyneside agreed to backpay 171 special guardians, who look after children on behalf of parents, after the ombudsman found the council had been underpaying since at least 2010.

But is the increase in complaints part of a shift in culture where customers are more inclined to seek redress for shoddy service? King says not, believing that people require ‘tenacity’ to make a complaint through an ombudsman.

Very often, they are not only thinking of themselves but want others to enjoy better service in future. ‘People raising concerns about public services is not just a quick fix,’ he says. ‘It should be about public accountability and how people engage with the state.’

This feature first appeared in local Government News magazine. Click here for your own free copy.

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