Complaints procedures: what are the implications of the new regulations for social services?

Sarah Baalham dissects the new regulations governing complaints procedures now in force and discusses how they will help those who are unhappy with the treatment they have received from social services

The regulations and guidance governing complaints about social services that came into force on 1 September have been keenly awaited for several years. But at first sight it doesn’t really feel as though the wait has been worth it.

Many of the changes initially proposed in drafts have been dropped along the way, and in many ways the new procedures look
much like the old ones. The opportunity to align social care and NHS complaints has been missed, although this is now due to happen in 2009. Further confusion has been added by slight differences in the complaints procedures for adults’ services and that for children’s services.

For children’s services, the procedure has caught up with new legislation, and complaints can now be made about things such
as care and supervision orders, adoption and guardianship. However, some new areas that people can complain about such as court reports are likely to be more problematic. In the past, most local authorities would inform complainants that court reports could only be challenged in court. This, particularly for children’s services, is likely to create a lot of work for a questionable outcome.

Stage one
Stage one of the process requires the local authority to resolve a complaint as close as possible to the point of contact with the service user. Also, if the matter is resolved satisfactorily there is no need to use the complaints procedure.

The new timescale for stage one complaints will be 10 working days, instead of the previous 28 calendar days. A further 10 working days can be added in more complex complaints or where time is needed to appoint an advocate. If the complainant
agrees, this can be further extended if, for example, a key person is off sick. Nonetheless, “most complaints” should be
concluded within 10 working days.

The complaints manager must be informed as soon as possible of any complaint so it can be recorded and monitored.
Previously, for many local authorities statistics were only reported after complaints had been resolved.

A child has a legal right to an independent and confidential advocate if making or intending to make a complaint, and the local authority must actively provide necessary information and help. The local authority must ensure that the advocate is acting with informed consent of the child or young person.

For adults, the local authority should consider what support and encouragement a complainant might need, and “facilitate”
independent advocacy.

A new “cut off point” is introduced, and a complaint must normally be received within one year of the date of the event that gives rise to the complaint, unless there are special circumstances and if it would still be possible to consider the complaint effectively in a way that would be fair to all involved.

Where the matter is not resolved the complainant has the right to go to stage two.

Stage two
An investigating officer must be appointed, who should not be in direct line management of the service or person about whom
the complaint is made.

An independent person will still be appointed in addition to the investigating officer for children’s complaints, and can also be used for adult complaints. The investigation should be completed and the response sent out within 25 working days. But where this is not possible, it may be extended up to 65 working days.

This is a useful change for many local authorities who have struggled to complete a thorough and meaningful investigation within five weeks.

A senior manager, usually the manager who reports to the director, should act as adjudicating officer. They should prepare
a response with their decision and actions they will be taking with timescales forimplementation. The complaints manager should monitor this and report regularly to the director. This will be a welcome change for many complaints managers, who frequently get frustrated when promises made to complainants by senior managers are not kept.

Stage three
Stage three provides for review panels.

Anyone who saw early drafts will know that there were plans to take this stage away from local authorities. However, this
proved unpopular and has not happened. Review panels will still only consider complaints that have been considered already at stage two. But an early referral to the ombudsman can now be made, which could be a useful alternative to holding a review  panel where nothing new can be achieved for the service user.

Panels for children’s complaints will in future be made up of three independent members. This will be a change for many
local authorities, where a senior manager from another service and a councillor would be panel members.

This is worrying as there is a danger that only lip service will be paid to any findings and recommendations of a panel of independents, whereas those made by a panel with a councillor and a senior officer would be accepted, as there would be a feeling that the panel understood the issues. It is also a real shame to lose one of the few occasions where councillors and senior managers sat and listened to complainants.

Only time will tell if all this will be an improvement for service users and staff or not; although that time will not be long as there will be further changes when the NHS and social care complaints procedures are aligned in 2009.

Whatever happens, let us hope that the guidance is right in stating that the complaints procedure “is a positive aid to inform and influence service improvements, not a negative process to apportion blame.”

Children’s Services – Who can complain
● Any child (or a parent of his or someone who has parental responsibility for him) who is being looked after by the local authority or is in need.
● Any foster carer.
● Children leaving care.
● Special guardians.
● A child or young person (or parent of his) to whom a special guardian order is in force.
● Any person who has applied for an assessment.
● Any child who may be adopted, their parents and guardians.
● People wishing to adopt a child.
● Any other person involved in adoption services.
● Adopted persons, their parents, natural parents and former guardians.
● Any person the local authority considers has sufficient interest in the child’s welfare.

Other changes
● Local authorities must provide information about how to complain, in a variety of formats suitable for its audience.
● Staff should talk to service users and their representatives to promote the right to complain.
● Staff should receive support, supervision and training to help them deal with complaints. An annual report should be made
available to the regulator and the general public.
● The local authority must record each complaint it receives, the outcome of each and whether time limits were complied with.
● Records of complaints should be placed on the service user’s file unless there are specific reasons not to do so. Care will be needed here to protect the confidentiality of staff complained about.
● Details of a child’s personal complaint should not be put into a complaints book that others can read.
● Local authorities will have to provide a system for the dissemination of learning from complaints to line managers, for the use of the complaints procedure as a measure of performance and means of quality control, and for the information derived from
complaints to contribute to practice development, commissioning and service planning.
● Councils should consider alternative methods of dispute resolution. Many are reporting great success in using mediation to resolve complaints and disagreements between service users and staff.
● If the complaint is about a proposed change, the decision may need to be frozen until the complaint is considered.
● New guidance on dealing with “unreasonably persistent complainants” will be very welcome to harassed local authority staff.
● The local authority will also have the discretion to decide whether or not someone making a complaint on behalf of a service user is suitable to act as their representative.

This article appearing in the 5th October issue, pages 38 & 39, under the headline A word in your ear


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