Widening cracks in council complaints systems

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has highlighted how ‘widening cracks’ are becoming more apparent in local government complaint handling.

The organisation’s annual review of complaints shows that the Ombudsman has upheld a greater proportion of investigations – 67 per cent – over the past year than ever before. This continues an upward trend since the Ombudsman started publishing its uphold rate.

Despite being closed to new complaints at the height of the first coronavirus lockdown, and so registering fewer complaints than recent years, the Ombudsman still received 11,830 complaints and enquiries from members of the public. The investigations undertaken over the past year have led to 3,104 recommendations to put things right for individuals.

Perhaps more importantly, there were 1,488 recommendations for councils to improve their services for others – such as revising procedures and training staff. This is a higher proportion of the total number of recommendations than previous years, and suggests Ombudsman investigations are increasingly finding systemic problems rather than one-off mistakes with local government services.

Over the past 12 months, the Ombudsman has found fault in more than three quarters of complaints investigated about Education and Children’s Services (77 per cent). There was an increase in the uphold rate of all categories of complaint, other than Environmental Services and Protection, which typically include complaints about refuse and recycling, noise, pollution and licensing.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “We’ve been issuing our annual reviews for the past seven years now and, while every year has seen its challenges, this year seems to have been the most difficult for local authorities.

“While the way local authorities dealt with the pressures of Covid-19 is still being played out in our casework, early indications suggest it is only widening the cracks that were already there, and has deepened our concerns about the status of complaints services within councils. These concerns are not new and cannot be wholly attributed to the trials of the pandemic.

“I am concerned about the general erosion to the visibility, capacity, and status of complaint functions within councils. Listening to public complaints is an essential part of a well-run and properly accountable local authority, committed to public engagement, learning, and improvement. I know the best councils still understand this and put local democracy and good complaints handling at the forefront of their services.”

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