Recent research among independent persons has highlighted
blockages in the Children Act’s complaints procedures. Gillian
Bridge and Cathy Street explain what lessons can be drawn from the
In law, looked-after children have the right to make complaints
about the way they are treated when in the care of social services.
However, practice is often different. Investigations into child
abuse scandals over the past 20 years have uncovered evidence of
children’s complaints being ignored.
To help children with a complaint, the Children Act 1989
introduced a complaints procedure available to all children covered
by its provisions. The act also introduced an independent and
neutral component to investigations with independent persons (IPs)
whose role is to provide proper scrutiny of services for children.
This role was set out in section 26(4) of the act and
implementation has taken place over a 10-year period.
In June 2000, the Department of Health started a consultation
process about these procedures.1 Its recommendations are
The consultation was timely. Research by the London School of
Economics has highlighted the need for change to the procedures and
that any amendments need to be implemented as soon as possible.
The LSE studied the role of IPs in investigating complaints and
found that their role is not straightforward, despite clear
guidance to local authorities for the introduction of complaints
procedures. It also reveals variation between local authorities’
use of them.
The LSE study has three phases. The first phase, now complete,
consisted of a postal questionnaire to obtain data on recruitment
and training issues related to the independent persons’ role.
The second phase consisted of in-depth interviews with 20
independent persons working in London boroughs and neighbouring
local authorities. These two phases have now been completed.
The third phase, now under way, consists of gathering
information from local authority complaints officers.
Their responses highlight serious difficulties in the current
process of investigating complaints and crucially, also raise
questions about how much influence the independent element of the
process really has on the local authority, especially once the
investigation is over.
Broadly speaking, interviewees’ concerns centred on issues
arising from variations in local authorities’ complaints
procedures. These included such practical matters as access to
local authority files, availability of staff for interview, and the
time and training made available to the local authority employee
acting as investigating officer for a complaint investigation.
Local authority accountability was another recurring interview
theme. Issues raised included the poor attention paid by many local
authorities to properly sharing information and decisions at the
conclusion of an investigation, both among staff and with the
The most serious finding was that the majority of interviewees
expressed strong doubts over the accessibility and flexibility of
the complaints procedure to respond to complaints from
This is a fundamental weakness in a procedure intended to
safeguard children by listening to them and hearing their points of
view, especially those who are in some way vulnerable or in
One finding that strongly points to access problems for young
people was that most investigated complaints are brought by adults,
including parents, foster carers and occasionally, guardians ad
litem. Of the young people who complained, these were usually older
teenagers being looked after by the local authority. This situation
has also been noted in earlier works by Wallis and Frost
19982 and Bridge 1999.3
Several of the independent persons who participated in the LSE
study expressed the view that not only does the system seem “too
pressured for them”, but that to many young people, it appears to
be a bureaucratic and slow process.
The study found that complaints investigations are rarely
completed within the 28-day period specified by the Department of
Health guidance. The view that young people need an immediate
response and will have, as one interviewee put it, “moved on,
possibly physically (through a move of placement) and emotionally”
by the time the complaints procedure has usually run its course,
was found to be widespread.
Other important issues raised by the interviewees concerned
whether young people had the confidence to complain, and here a
potential conflict of interest inherent in the system was
identified. Very often the first person a looked-after child or
young person will complain to is their link worker or field social
worker, both of whom have an enormous investment in the placement
not being disrupted.
Having the confidence to make a complaint, especially against
those who may be looking after you, (in the case of young people
looked after by the local authority), was widely felt to be
essential in using the complaints procedure. Yet many children and
young people, especially if they have suffered trauma and the
disruption of having to live away from their families, may lack
self-esteem. Most of the interviewees suggested that complaint
processes do not match well with this situation.
Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, the study revealed that
particularly older adolescents were labelled as troublesome so they
might not have been believed when they made a complaint. Often the
complaints had apparently gone no further than stage one (the
informal or problem-solving stage).
The interviewees had concerns about the lack of recorded
information about stage one investigations, echoing the finding of
other research that this has been poorly monitored.4
In the DoH’s consultation document Listening to People,
the report of the Waterhouse inquiry into the abuse of children in
care in North Wales is mentioned. Listening to People
details many examples of instances where children tried to complain
but were not listened to. It also describes the failure of all
agencies to establish and monitor the operation of effective
complaints procedures for vulnerable children.
Many of the events described in the Waterhouse report predate
the introduction of the complaints procedures now in place.
However, as the LSE study illustrates, albeit based on a relatively
small sample, concerns about young people’s ability to complain
persist – with the data this time being drawn from another key
perspective, that of independent persons, whose role is described
in the consultation document as that of “impartial scrutineer ….
an important hedge against collusion or cover-up”.
Hopefully, the DoH will soon announce how it intends to improve
the present framework for dealing with complaints. This must detail
how access to the procedure by children and young people will be
1 Department of Health, Listening to
People: A Consultation on Improving Social Services Complaints
Procedures, June 2000
2 Lorraine Wallis and Nick Frost, Cause
for Complaint, The Children’s Society 1998
3 Gillian Bridge “Putting the Children Act
Independent Person Procedure under the Spotlight”, Social
Policy and Administration, Volume 33, no.2, June
4 Social Services Inspectorate/Department of
Health, Social Services Inspection of Complaints Procedures on
Local Authority Social Services Departments – Third Overview
Report, DoH, 1996
Gillian Bridge is a lecturer and Cathy Street a course
tutor, in the department of social policy at the London School of
Economics and Political Science.