The complaints system is changing but will it improve?


Sarah Baalham, Suffolk Council customer care manager

Complaints managers in local authorities are in a unique position – we probably know more than any single member of frontline staff about what users think of the care services they receive, and yet we also usually know as much about the policies and procedures of our organisations as senior managers, and nearly as much about care legislation as our lawyers. So, usually our “hot topics” when we get together will be a mixture of legislation, policy and nitty-gritty care issues. However, the thread that runs through all of this is our fervent desire to improve the quality of the care services our authorities provide.

Most of us in local authorities have now successfully implemented the new complaints regulations and guidance from last year, and have also “split” into children’s and adults’ complaints staff. For most of us this has meant a welcome increase in staff numbers, although my colleagues and I still struggle with greater numbers of complaints, of increasing complexity, and wonder how we ever managed before.

October saw the end of a consultation period by the Department of Health on yet another proposed new complaints procedure – this time a joint one across social care and health. Most complaints managers see the need for a more integrated approach, but I think we all struggle to see how the proposals would make anything any better. Personally I fear that we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater as there is no evidence that the social care complaints procedure needs such drastic change, but there is a lot of evidence that the NHS complaints procedure is ready for an overhaul.

As always, we complaints managers have to cope with the aftermath of changes in the way care services are delivered. Many of our local authorities have tightened their eligibility criteria, and this of course has a knock-on effect on the number of complaints received. We are also very concerned about the move towards outsourcing more and more care services. How can we ensure that those who use the services can still voice their concerns and have them properly dealt with? Many of us are also deeply concerned by the fact that there is no independent body who can investigate complaints for the increasing number of people who arrange and fund their own care. We hope that the new regulator will help us here.

We all still continue to do all we can to make it easier for our service users to give feedback, positive and negative, and to ensure that our organisations learn from it. Sadly we all have relatively low status in our organisations ourselves, and it is hard for us to get our voices heard too.


Pat’s story

Pat complained to her local council about the way her request for an occupational therapy assessment was dealt with. She felt really strongly that she wanted to improve things for other people who were less able to complain than she was. Pat felt that the council’s customer care had been sorely lacking when she first approached them for an assessment. Her phone calls were not answered, the letters she received didn’t give her the information she needed, and she found it almost impossible to find out where she was on the waiting list.

She felt her complaint was dealt with in a similar way initially. However, Pat says there was a marked contrast during the formal investigation of her complaint. “The investigating officer really listened to me,” she says. “She was probably the first person in the council who took the time to understand my needs and to answer my questions.”

Pat met a senior manager to discuss the outcome of the investigation, and says she really valued being given the opportunity to get involved in determining what improvements were needed to the service.

Jane’s story

Jane complained after her home care hours were reduced. Her complaint was not resolved initially, and she also went on to a formal investigation. The investigating officer found strong grounds for Jane’s care hours to be reinstated, and this recommendation was acted upon. Jane says: “It was just a pity that my complaint had to go to a formal investigation before the council recognised that it had made a mistake. But I was very pleased with the outcome and the way the investigating officer and other complaints staff dealt with my complaint. I had a productive meeting with a senior manager, who apologised to me in person for the way I had been treated, which meant a lot to me, but the whole experience was very stressful and I would rather not have had to go through it.”

Jim’s story

Jim complained that his mother’s home care had been stopped following a review. But, the assessor found that all the carers were really doing was chatting with his mother and checking that she was OK. She did not actually need help with personal care and did not fall into the critical or substantial bandings which the council used under Fair Access to Care Services.

But Jim still wanted her to have the visits, as he felt “anything could happen to her” alone at home. Jim’s complaint was initially dealt with through the council’s appeal process and a panel of three managers found that the assessor’s decision was reasonable. Instead of a formal investigation by the council, Jim decided to take his complaint straight to the ombudsman. The ombudsman felt the council’s decision was reasonable, but suggested that as compensation for delays in dealing with Jim’s complaint, it should fit a key safe for his mother for easy access in an emergency. But Jim says “I am still worried sick about my mother and it feels like nobody cares.”


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