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LOCAL GOVERNMENT OMBUDSMEN INVESTIGATION REPORTS ISSUED SINCE 24 FEBRUARY 2000

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Findings of maladministration and injustice ...
Findings of maladministration and injustice

Cumbria CC (98/C/0002)

Social services for adults

'Mrs Lamb' (not her real name for legal reasons) complained that the council failed properly to deal with the events leading up to and following the decision by her daughter, who has learning disabilities, to leave home. In particular Mrs Lamb complained:

'that the council failed to keep the family properly informed of her daughter's allegations of abuse and unhappiness at home and delayed dealing with those allegations;

'that a social worker breached confidentiality by discussing with a prospective service-provider a possible placement for her daughter which she felt contributed significantly to the breakdown of relationships between her daughter and her family; and

'that it failed to investigate her formal complaint properly.

She says that by the time mediation was offered to the family her daughter was already settled in an unsuitable placement away from home and was determined to remain there without contact with her family.

The ombudsman concludes that the council failed to provide timely conciliation between Mrs Lamb's daughter and her family and failed to deal with allegations of abuse in accordance with its procedure. This led to Mrs Lamb's daughter leaving home in an unplanned and precipitous manner, following which she elected to remain in accommodation unsuited to her needs in the care of someone without sufficient skill or experience to meet those needs and with whom her parents particularly did not wish her to live. There was clear evidence that Mrs Lamb's daughter's social worker had breached confidentiality in discussing a placement prematurely with a prospective service-provider.

The council failed to investigate Mrs Lamb's formal complaint properly. The ombudsman was concerned at the inability of the council to produce for her examination all the notes of the complaints investigation undertaken, on which the investigating officer had allegedly based her report to the council. The council failed to ensure that someone - other than members of the social services department - reviewed the handling of the complaint at any time, and failed to share all relevant information with Mrs Lamb.

The ombudsman concludes that these failings were maladministration and recommends that the council should pay£500 compensation to Mrs Lamb and apologise for the injustice to her arising from the shortcomings outlined above. She further recommends that the council should thoroughly review its complaints procedures and instructions to investigating officers to ensure that all complaints are investigated thoroughly and impartially; that all documents are retained by the council for future reference; and that all relevant information in the final complaints investigation report should, except in exceptional circumstances, be made available to the complainant. The ombudsman further recommends that the council considers whether its procedures for investigating allegations of bias and prejudice by an officer are effective and transparent. The council has already reviewed and re-launched its procedure for handling allegations of abuse by vulnerable adults.

Nottinghamshire CC (97/C/4820)

Services for children

'Mr James' (not his real name for legal reasons) complained that, having approached the council for help with anger management at a time when he was concerned about his potential behavioural problems towards his and his wife's as yet unborn child, the council failed to assist him in obtaining such help. He felt that social workers dealt with him in a hostile and confrontational way; that as a result he was prevented from living with his wife and child; and that, when he and his wife were reconciled and had been living together for some nine months, social workers wrongly interpreted a court order about supervised access and were again determined that the family should separate. He says inaccurate information was given to a court about a psychiatric report when, in reality, no such report existed. Mr James also complains that the council failed to deal properly with his formal complaint about these matters.

The ombudsman finds that the council could have been more pro-active at an early stage in assisting Mr James in obtaining the help he sought and that there can have been no valid reason why it should not have done so in view of the fact that it did so at a later stage. This might have assisted Mr James to respond more positively and appropriately to the initial assessment process instead of being banned from attending assessment sessions because of problematic incidents. The failure to assist was maladministration and caused injustice to Mr James. The ombudsman sees no evidence to support Mr James' allegation about the psychiatric report.

The ombudsman finds that, as the council had a duty to safeguard the welfare of Mr James' child, it had no alternative but to carry out a risk assessment. She sees no evidence that social workers had prevented Mr James living with his wife since at this time Mrs James was being advised by a solicitor and applied of her own volition for an injunction to prevent Mr James from harassing her. The ombudsman does not find it unreasonable that, once the council found that Mr and Mrs James were again living together, it had to conduct a further risk assessment. She sees no evidence that the approach of the social worker at this time was unduly negative or unhelpful.

The ombudsman concludes that there was gross delay between receipt of Mr James' formal complaint and the commencement of the investigation, and this constitutes maladministration causing injustice to Mr James. There was further maladministration as follows:

'the investigation report did not cover all the issues raised by Mr James, it contained inaccurate and misleading information, and it reached conclusions which were not supported by the evidence;

'the statutory timescales for dealing with social services complaints were exceeded throughout the process;

'the ombudsman considers that the investigation report was so flawed that the council should have refused to accept it and re-investigated the complaint;

'the review panel had recommended that serious matters raised by Mr James should be the subject of further investigation but the council was unable to tell the ombudsman whether this happened or not;

'no apology was ever offered to Mr James for those limited parts of his complaint that the council upheld.

The ombudsman recommends that the council should apologise to Mr James for its failure to provide him with assistance when he asked for it in May 1993; for its failure to investigate his complaint properly; and for its total failure to comply with statutory requirements in dealing with complaints. She further recommends that the council should pay Mr James£650 for the distress caused and for his time and trouble in pursuing his complaint.

Newham LBC (98/A/5425)

Education, other

Following an incident at her son's school, 'Mrs Peck' (not her real name for legal reasons) was sent a letter by the council which banned her from the school premises. She wanted an opportunity to present her side of the story and to contest the ban. She was told that she could use the authority's complaints procedure. She tried to have the matter dealt with in this way but did not receive a hearing at any stage. She sought legal advice. The ban was lifted around six months after the incident.

The ombudsman finds that the council was at fault because it did not give Mrs Peck proper advice on how to complain about the ban; did not keep proper records; and did not act reasonably to ensure that Mrs Peck received a hearing.

The ombudsman finds that Mrs Peck suffered injustice because she was not given the hearing to which she was entitled, and she was put to avoidable time and trouble. The ombudsman recommends the Council to pay Mrs Peck£250.

Ealing (98/A/2123, 2310 & 5538)

Homelessness & housing benefit

'Mrs Asha' (not her real name for legal reasons) has seven children, the youngest of whom was born in April 1996. She has received income support continuously since 1995. She complained to the ombudsman about the way the council dealt with her housing benefit and her application for rehousing.

In December 1997, two investigating officers visited Mrs Asha at home. What they saw raised legitimate questions about her financial circumstances. The council wrote to Mrs Asha in December 1997 and January 1998 asking for information to answer its questions. In January, the council suspended her benefit payments and in March it cancelled the claim; it did not notify Mrs Asha of either determination or tell her about her statutory right of appeal. Nor did the council determine the new claim Mrs Asha made in April 1998.

Meantime, Mrs Asha's rent arrears rose and, as a result, she was evicted on 30 June 1998. The council placed the family in a bed and breakfast hotel until mid August 1998 and then in two rooms in a council hostel until January 1999, when the family moved to a house with four bedrooms.

The council continued to write to, visit and interview Mrs Asha about her benefit claim. In November 1998 the council decided to pay her maximum housing benefit from December 1997.

In 1995 Mrs Asha had applied to the council as homeless. The council helped her to find temporary housing but reached no decision on her homelessness application. It lost track of her and so suspended her housing register application. In May 1998 Mrs Asha again applied to the council as homeless. In December 1998 the council accepted a duty to her under the legislation on homelessness.

Mrs Asha made complaints to the council in February and April 1998. The council dealt with neither of them in the way required by its complaints procedure.

The ombudsman finds that there was maladministration in the council's handling of Mrs Asha's benefit claim, rehousing application and complaints. He expresses particular concern that the council did not notify Mrs Asha that it had suspended and subsequently cancelled her claim; and that it did not tell her of her rights of appeal. He considers that the council should have promptly informed the DSS of its doubts about her income and withheld benefit pending adjudication by the DSS on whether Mrs Asha remained entitled to income support. The ombudsman considers it likely that if the council had done so, the DSS would have decided that she was entitled to income support in time for housing benefit to be paid before the eviction took place.

Accordingly the ombudsman finds that the maladministration caused Mrs Asha and her children serious injustice. They were evicted, lost possessions, had to live in bed and breakfast accommodation and a council hostel and were caused much anxiety. He recommends that the council should pay Mrs Asha£2,000 and make a report to councillors about measures to ensure that claimants are treated properly.

Lewisham LBC (99/B/0752)

Housing register/allocations & homelessness

The council accept a duty to secure rehousing for 'Miss Skye' (not her real name for legal reasons) and her two children for a two year period. There was a shortage of temporary council-owned accommodation and the council asked Miss Skye to make her own temporary arrangements. Miss Skye has had to move frequently. The council has an acute shortage of three and four bedroom accommodation, and there was considerable delay before Miss Skye was rehoused. Had she been living in one of the council's hostels she would have had more priority.

The ombudsman finds maladministration causing injustice and recommends that the council should make an ex gratia payment of£2,000 to Miss Skye. It should also review its arrangements for discharging its duty to homeless people.

Local settlement reports

Bolton MBC (98/C/1088)

Social services for children

'Mrs Ash' (not her real name for legalreasons) complained that, in dealing with her complaint about the way the social services had dealt with her children, the council had unreasonably imposed a time limit, had taken too long in investigating, and had denied her the right to take her complaints to a review panel.

The ombudsman concludes that it was not unreasonable for the council to have focussed its investigation on more recent events or to have eliminated parts of the complaint that had already been dealt with, could have been raised earlier, could have been raised by others more directly involved, or which fell outside the limits of the social services statutory complaints procedure. However, the ombudsman concludes that these decisions had not been taken in accordance with the council's procedures nor had they been properly recorded.

The council failed to meet the timescales laid down by government for the investigation of complaints under the Children Act procedure and, in particular, delayed unreasonably in appointing an investigating officer. Whilst the ombudsman recognises that the timescale is widely considered to be unrealistic, nonetheless the council should at least attempt to meet it and should avoid unnecessary delays. It is essential that councils clearly communicate findings of investigations to complainants and this the council did not do. The council's decision not to allow Mrs Ash's complaint to go to a review panel took into account irrelevant issues and incorporated an improper assumption that the independent panel would not find in Mrs Ash's favour. Nevertheless, the council may still have properly reached a decision not to offer a review panel.

The council has agreed to amend its standard letter to complainants to make clear the entitlement to a review panel hearing. The ombudsman recommends in addition that the council should write to the complainant setting out clearly its findings on each part of her complaint as investigated and the council has agreed to do this. The ombudsman considers this to be a satisfactory settlement of the complaint.

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