When young people believe they have been let down by their local authority, what can they do? First, they can complain to the council (see Complaint procedures). If the individual is still not satisfied, the next port of call may be their local government ombudsman. But ask a young person who that is and you’re likely to be met by a blank face.
There are three local government ombudsmen in England (Scotland and Wales both have one) who each deal with complaints from different parts of the country. They investigate complaints about most council matters including social services, housing and education.
A 2003 survey showed that half the public knew about the ombudsmen, but only 11% of 15- to 24-year-olds. Yet many young people receive high levels of service from local authorities, including children in care, those outside mainstream education, young carers and disabled children. Inevitably things will sometimes go wrong, but the young person will not know what to do about it.
Of more than 18,000 complaints received annually, just over 2,000 concern issues affecting young people. In 2006-7, the ombudsmen received more than 1,400 complaints about education issues and nearly 700 about children and family services. But few complaints are received directly from a young person or an advocate on their behalf.
In 2004, specialist investigators were located in each ombudsman’s office to deal with complaints from young people. The numbers of these complaints have subsequently increased from just a handful in 2003 to about 50 in 2006 still small, but a welcome increase.
Last year, to increase awareness of their role with young people, the ombudsmen issued a casebook with examples of complaints aimed primarily at advocates and advice agencies. This has been followed by meetings with these bodies to explain the ombudsmen’s work and how they can make complaints on behalf of their clients.
The ombudsmen recognise that some young people are particularly vulnerable and working practices should meet their needs. Their complaints are given priority, aiming for speedy resolution where possible. The investigators seek to be flexible and can adapt working methods as the young person prefers, including e-mail or text messaging.
An ombudsman’s role is to consider complaints about harm arising from maladministration looking at the way councils have done things and whether there has been administrative fault. But the role is not to review the merits of decisions where there has been no fault. Things that might be looked at include:
● How well social workers have assessed a child’s needs and prepared a care plan to provide the care identified, taking into account all relevant information.
● How well a council looks after children, whether they carry out reviews properly and help children stay in contact with their families, and the support given when they leave care.
● The way a council assesses and plans help for a child with disabilities.
● The way a child is assessed and issued with a statement of special educational needs, and resourcing the support listed in the statement.
● Advice and help given to young homeless people.
A complaint should normally be brought within 12 months of the event. Where there is another remedy available, such as a tribunal or court, the ombudsman must consider whether it is reasonable to expect the young person to make use of it. A complaint cannot be considered if that alternative remedy has already been used.
Where fault is found, recommendations can be made. These might include putting in place services that have not been provided, paying compensation or reviewing procedures to avoid problems happening again. The aim, where possible, is to put the young person in the position they would have been in if the fault had not happened.
Although the numbers of complaints are low, the proportion where a remedy is achieved is much higher than other types of complaints typically about 65% compared with 27% generally. And as the case studies (right) show, they can have a real impact on the lives of vulnerable young people.
‘Deprived of family life’
A solicitor complained on behalf of Natasha, aged 10, that a council failed to safeguard her welfare when she was in its care or comply with a court order to promote contact with her family. Her grandparents complained that the council failed to promote contact and unreasonably delayed in assessing them as prospective carers.
The ombudsman found that the council failed to: comply with the court order to maintain and fund contact, arrange for social workers to visit Natasha for more than 18 months while she was in its care, assess her grandparents as prospective carers. The council moved her to foster carers instead of contacting her grandparents as required, and sought to prevent her grandmother from caring for her.
The council had already introduced extensive changes to its systems. In addition, it agreed to pay £40,000 to Natasha in recognition of the four years she was deprived of family life and £10,000 to her grandparents in recognition that they were deprived of the opportunity to care for their granddaughter and reimbursement of the expenses they incurred. The ombudsman said the compensation reflected the fact that Natasha “was deprived of over three and a half years of her childhood as a result of the council’s incompetence and complete failure to act in any way which promoted her welfare”.
‘He voted with his feet’
John, who had emotional and behavioural problems and a statement of special educational needs, was looked after by a council. After problems with his placement, he was moved to one in another county, against his wishes. The council knew there was no suitable education available there but still moved him, despite concluding that he shouldn’t be moved unless good education was in place.
The council in the area he moved to became responsible for his special educational needs but failed to provide any education for six months and then only limited tuition. It delayed carrying out the annual review and the statement was not amended. The first council failed to review the situation properly. Eventually he got on a train home, prompting the ombudsman to comment: “John voted with his feet and found his way backIt is unacceptable that such a vulnerable young person should have to do this.”
A placement was found locally and a plan put in place for his education. The councils agreed to review the way they dealt with special education provision including better liaison. The first council agreed to ensure all social services complaints are dealt with in accordance with the statutory procedure and pay compensation of £8,000. The second agreed to review its arrangements for annual reviews give consideration to issues highlighted by this complaint as part of a review of its special school provision and pay compensation of £5,000.
COMPLAINT PROCEDURES (back)
Most councils’ complaints procedures have three stages: informal resolution investigation and review.
There is a statutory procedure for complaints about social care services. The three-stage process includes an independent investigation at stage two and an independent review panel at stage three. The procedure is designed to improve complaints handling and help young people resolve their complaints more quickly, with tighter timescales imposed.
A council should consider a complaint before it goes to the ombudsman, and a complaint may be sent back to the council if it has not yet had a reasonable opportunity to deal with it. Where this happens, the investigator will track its progress and ask the council for a copy of its responses. If the case is urgent, or there has been delay, a complaint might be investigated even where the council has not considered it.
Peter Whiteley is communications project officer at the Local Government Ombudsman
This article appeared in the 30 August issue under the headline “Who is there to complain to”