The local government and social care ombudsman upheld 63% of adult social care complaints in 2016-17, 10% higher than the average across all sectors, the watchdog’s annual review has revealed.
The proportion of investigations upheld during 2016-17 rose 5% year on year, while the number of investigations completed – 1,214 – was up 9%.
Complaints relating to adult safeguarding saw the steepest climb, up 27% from 2015-16. Meanwhile the number of complaints relating to independent care providers was up 16% to 447, continuing a steady rise from just 58 back in 2010-11.
Michael King, the local government and social care ombudsman, said the safeguarding figures were “worrying”. But he welcomed the rise in independent care complaints as evidence of a “learning culture” among providers, which he said were getting better at responding to complaints and encouraging people to refer them.
In all the ombudsman, which acts as a last resort for disputes that have not been resolved locally, received 3,061 complaints and enquiries relating to adult social care, up slightly from 2,969 in 2015-16.
Assessment and care planning attracted the most complaints, 715 (up from 600), followed by residential care (609, up from 599) and home care (362, down from 372).
Complaints about safeguarding, which had fallen during 2015-16, rose from 223 to 283. Of these, 64% were upheld, a 6% rise on the previous year.
King said this was a concern, given that safeguarding complaints were unlikely to be affected by financial pressures faced by councils in the same way as other areas.
“It’s a relatively low-volume [area] but very high seriousness; that statistic is worrying and we will be doing more detailed work around the types of complaints and lessons that can be learned,” he said.
Of the total complaints received by the ombudsman, 447 related to independent care providers, up from 386 the previous year, which King attributed to a “growing maturity” in the sector.
“People are more willing to look at complaints as a learning tool; we’ve been working in partnership with providers to build confidence around complaint handling and encourage people to refer unresolved complaints to us,” he said.
Martin Green, the chief executive of sector body Care England, said it was “right and proper” that providers should work with the ombudsman.
“In a sector being squeezed in all directions, it is heartening to see providers being praised for making the ombudsman’s role better known, and taking a lead in learning from complaints,” he said.
The ombudsman’s review also highlighted the potential for complaints to result in service improvements that benefit people beyond the primary complainant.
Around one in three complaints remedied in 2016-17 included measures to address “systemic problems”, it said, such as instigating procedural changes or training staff.
King told Community Care the ombudsman would be increasingly looking to use powers in place since 2008 that enable the service to broaden its investigations in order to tackle problems affecting more than one person.
“There is a growing understanding between councils, care providers and us that the power of complaints isn’t just sorting out the day-to-day stuff but what you learn and how you use that as tool for improvement,” he said.
Margaret Willcox, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS), said she welcomed the ombudsman’s review acknowledging a “positive response” from local government at a time of financial pressure.
“While recognising there has been an increase in complaints over the year, the report does not directly correlate this to a dip in quality,” she said.
“The report notes that councils and providers have acted positively to implement recommendations,, acknowledging fault and areas for improvement and encouraging feedback as a way of learning and improving services.”
Izzi Seccombe, chair of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said councils would continue to “work hard to ensure people have their voices heard” and to learn from mistakes. But she warned that the adult social care sector’s ongoing funding crisis would make things more difficult.
“We are concerned that despite care workers’ best efforts, complaints could become more frequent as the combined pressures of insufficient funding, growing demand and extra costs mean councils will have less money for essential social care services,” Seccombe said.