Frequently Asked Questions
Complaining to the council first
What is the council’s complaints procedure?
All councils have published complaints procedures that show how they investigate complaints. These vary from council to council but usually include two or more stages, each operated by a more senior member of staff than the last stage or, in some cases, elected councillors. At each stage of the complaints procedure the council will normally send you a written response and invite you to comment. The council will normally tell you when it writes to you if there is another stage of the complaints procedure.
Where can I get details of the council’s complaints procedure?
Look at the council’s website, or telephone the council and ask for a copy.
Do I have to go all the way through a council’s complaints procedure first before I complain to the Ombudsman?
Yes, usually you do. The law says that we have to give the council a reasonable chance to consider your complaint and respond. If you write to us at the same time as or shortly after making a complaint to the council it is unlikely we will consider it, unless it is very urgent or you are particularly at risk. But, if the council is taking more than 12 weeks to investigate your complaint and give you a satisfactory answer, ring our helpline for further advice, as we may then be able to look at your complaint without you completing all stages the council's procedure.
For complaints about children and family services there is a special procedure provided by Parliament for the purpose, so the Ombudsman normally expects people to go through all the stages first, even if it takes more than 12 weeks.
For complaints about adult care services, please see the separate section on Adult social care.
I complained to the council before it decided the issue I am concerned about – can I complain to the Ombudsman now?
No, because until the council makes a decision affecting you, we do not consider that there is a cause for your complaint. Once it takes that decision, then you should give the council 12 weeks to respond to the complaint about it.
Why have you sent my complaint to the council? – I want to complain to the Ombudsman not the council.
The Local Government Act 1974 says that, before investigating a complaint, the Ombudsman must be sure that the council knows about the complaint and has had a reasonable opportunity to investigate and reply to it. We usually expect you to go through all stages of the council's complaints procedure before we will look at your complaint. We have concluded, from what you have told us, that the council has not had sufficient opportunity to consider your complaint and so we have sent it to the council so it can respond.
Why must I allow the council 12 weeks to respond to the complaint when I know it will not change its decision?
Experience suggests that many councils are quite successful at resolving complaints through their own complaints procedures. About two thirds of the complaints that we refer to councils to investigate are not pursued by the complainant with us afterwards.
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Council taking action during complaint investigation
Can the Ombudsman stop the council taking action while you are looking into my complaint?
The Ombudsman has no power to tell the council what to do or what not to do while we are investigating your complaint. The law says that the council should continue to deal with matters in the normal way. So, for example, it is very unlikely that the council would agree to stop the process of considering a planning application. However, where we are investigating a matter such as delay in deciding a housing benefit or council tax benefit claim, and the council is threatening to take action against you because you are in arrears with your rent or council tax, we can ask the council to put any further action on hold. It will often agree to do this as the Ombudsman would be very critical if it refused and was later found to be responsible for the arrears through delay in processing a claim.
But if the council does not agree to hold off action against you, you will need to pay what you are being asked for to avoid any legal consequences. If we uphold your complaint we may ask the council to pay you back any money wrongly paid by you.
My complaint is about the grant of planning permission. I have been told the development will start very shortly, so if I have to wait 12 weeks before the Ombudsman investigates it is possible the development will be completed.
It is unlikely that any planning permission already granted will be changed by an investigation by either the council or the Ombudsman. If either thought there had been fault in the process that led to the decision, then steps might be taken to reduce the effects of development on you, for example by arranging screening or by paying you compensation. More details of this are given in our fact sheets.
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Do I have to fill in your Equality Monitoring form?
You can choose whether or not to complete an equality monitoring form, if you are sent one. They are optional and voluntary and will not affect your access to our service or the outcome of your complaint.
Why do you need to collect equality and diversity data?
As a public body dealing with individual complaints it is important that our service is open and accessible. Equality monitoring has an important role in achieving this. It tells us about who complains to us, in relation to which types of bodies and which types of public service. This data taken as a whole can tell us important trends about whether certain services are nationally failing certain types of people more than others, or are seen more negatively.
It is also important to have equality and diversity data on what types of people use our services in order to better understand who are our user group is so that we can construct services accordingly.
Collecting equality data is an important corporate objective for us, in order to find out if the groups monitored use our services in similar proportions to how those groups use local public services. It is also one supported by the Government in passing the Equality Act 2010. The Act includes a specific duty for public bodies over a certain size. This new duty further emphasises the importance of collecting equality data from service users, from which we will then be expected to set equality objectives.
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Making complaints for other people
I have a friend/relative who wants to make a complaint but can’t manage it. Can I complain on their behalf?
Yes, but you might want to check our arrangements for helping people with different needs first in case they want to do it themselves.
If you still wish to make the complaint for someone else, you must get their permission. This should be in writing, unless there are exceptional circumstances. Please call us on 0300 061 0614 to discuss how to make the complaint if the person you are helping cannot give you a signature.
Can someone else make a complaint on my behalf?
Yes. You can get someone else, such as a friend, relative, or advice agency to complain for you. You must give permission for a complaint to be made and for the person to represent you. This should normally be in writing.
If you employ a professional person, such as a solicitor or surveyor, to help you with your complaint, we will only ask the council to pay the fee in exceptional circumstances. This is because people do not usually need a professional to put a complaint to us. However, you may be eligible for help from a solicitor or some advice agencies through the Legal Services Commission’s Legal Help Scheme.
Before deciding to ask someone to make the complaint on your behalf, you might want to look at our arrangements for helping people with different needs.
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Can the Ombudsman overturn a council’s decision – for example, take away planning permission?
Generally speaking, no. If we find that there has been some fault in the way a decision was taken, we may be able to ask the council to reconsider it, depending on the circumstances of the complaint. If that is not possible we might ask the council, where appropriate, to pay you compensation for the effects of a decision which was not made in the correct way. But the Ombudsman cannot act as an appeal body against a council’s decision and has no legal power to overturn or override a decision. So, for example, the Ombudsman will not be able to get the council to stop your neighbour building an extension for which planning permission has been granted.
Can the Ombudsman force a council to follow their recommendations?
No. The Ombudsman has no legal power to make the council act on their decisions. But in nearly all cases councils do follow our recommendations.
What if a council doesn’t comply with an Ombudsman’s recommendations?
If a council does not agree to a settlement we have proposed, the Ombudsman may issue a formal report about the complaint, naming the council involved. The report must be made available to the public and advertised in the local press covering the council’s area.
If the council does not agree to carry out the recommendations in the report, the Ombudsman can issue a further report. After this, if the council still does not take satisfactory action it must publish a statement in a local newspaper explaining why it has refused to follow the Ombudsman’s recommendations. But it is very rare for a council to refuse to carry out the Ombudsman’s recommendations.
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Passing information on to the council
If I send you information about my complaint will you pass it on to the council or can you treat it as confidential?
We believe that we should operate in an open manner. So, generally, we will not invite or encourage a council or a complainant to send us anything in confidence.
But the law says that the Ombudsman must send the council a copy of any decision made on a complaint, including a decision not to investigate. Where we do investigate a complaint, the law also says that we must give the council a chance to comment on any allegations contained in the complaint.
This means that normally we will send the council copies of your complaint, along with any other documents you send us that are relevant to the allegations, to allow the council a proper chance to comment. If you send us personal information which is not relevant to the complaint we will treat it as confidential and not reveal it to the council. We will usually send you the papers the council sends us about your complaint, unless they are confidential.
If you are worried about revealing certain information to the council, you should speak to the investigator dealing with your complaint, or get more advice by phoning us on 0300 061 0614 if you haven’t made a complaint yet and want to discuss this point.
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Personal involvement of Ombudsmen
Will the Ombudsman deal with my complaint personally?
We receive over 20,000 complaints and enquiries a year and it wouldn’t be possible for the Ombudsman to be involved personally in every case. She has a staff of trained investigators who carry out the detailed work. In most cases decisions on complaints are made by investigators on the Ombudsman’s behalf.
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Providing information to support a complaint
I have a large bundle of papers – should I send them all in to your office?
If you are making a complaint and you have a lot of papers, it is helpful if you send copies of only the most important ones at that stage, and explain what other documents you have available, rather than sending us everything. The investigator who deals with your complaint will then be able to ask you for further information if necessary.
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Taking alternative action
Can I go to court as well as complaining to the Ombudsman?
No. The law does not allow us to investigate something you could appeal about to a tribunal or a government minister or go to court about, unless we think there are good reasons why you should not be expected to do so. If we start investigating your complaint because we think you should not be expected to take such action, we will have to stop the investigation if you later take that action after all.
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Time taken to investigate complaints
How long will it take the Ombudsman to investigate the complaint?
We complete our investigations as quickly as we can. Sometimes, it can take some time to gather the information we need to reach a decision. We aim to make decisions on 65% of cases within 13 weeks and on 85% within 26 weeks.
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