Shropshire Council (17 015 746)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 24 Sep 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains about the Council’s handling of his complaints; breaches of data protection and the actions of a social worker. The Ombudsman will not consider allegations about breaches of data protection or the actions of a social worker, as there are other bodies better placed to deal with these complaints. The Ombudsman finds no evidence of fault causing significant injustice in how the Council dealt with Mr X’s complaints.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains that:
    • The Council failed to recognise the conflict of interest in Ms Y attending a child protection meeting in March 2016.
    • The Council restricted his communications under its vexatious customers’ policy.
    • The Council failed to follow the statutory children’s complaints process.
    • The Council has not dealt with his complaints properly.
  2. Mr X also complains about data protection breaches by the Council and the actions of a social worker.

What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated the complaints set out at paragraph 1 above. At the end of this decision I have explained why I have not investigated Mr X’s other complaints.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe there is another body better placed to consider this complaint. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)
  3. We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
  4. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
  5. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I spoke to Mr X and I reviewed documents provided by Mr X and the Council. I gave Mr X and the Council the opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision and I considered the comments provided.

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What I found

  1. The Council publishes a copy of its corporate complaints policy on its website. This says it will try to resolve complaints informally first. So, it will direct all complaints to the relevant service area for them to address directly. If this does not resolve matters the complainant can use the formal complaints process.
  2. The formal complaints process has two stages. At stage 1 the Council aims to respond within six weeks. If the complainant is unhappy with the stage 1 response they can ask for a stage 2 review. The Council aims to complete the stage 2 review within six weeks. If the complainant is still unhappy they can contact the Ombudsman.
  3. At appendix 1 of the complaints policy the Council publishes an “Unreasonably persistent and vexatious customers procedure”. I note the following key points:
    • Unreasonably persistent and vexatious customers are those individuals who, because of the nature or frequency of their contacts with the Council, hinder the Council’s ability to deliver services to its customers.
    • The Council lists examples of unreasonable behaviour.
    • Once the Council has decided to follow this procedure it will send a warning letter to the customer. This will explain their issues have been fully addressed and it will deal with any future contact on the same issue under the unreasonably persistent and vexatious policy.
    • It will consider any new complaints on their own merits. However, if new complaints relate to the same or similar issues previously addressed, it may not be appropriate to investigate these issues further.
    • Once the Council has decided to restrict contact under this procedure it will notify a customer explaining the decision and restrictions on contact.
    • A customer has a right to appeal against the decision to the Council.
    • The Council’s decision to restrict contact will be reviewed after six months.

Statutory children’s complaints process

  1. The Department for Education publishes a guidance document on the statutory children’s complaints process called “Getting the Best From Complaints”.
  2. This explains the purpose of the complaints procedure is to ensure the voices of children are heard. It says:

“A complaint may be generally defined as an expression of dissatisfaction or disquiet in relation to an individual child or young person, which requires a response.”

What happened

Conflict of interest

  1. Mr X complained to the Council that his children’s grandmother, Ms Y, attended his children’s Child Protection conference and she was friends with a core group member. Mr X felt this was a conflict of interest.
  2. The Council told Mr X that Ms Y was not present.
  3. Mr X provided evidence to the Ombudsman to show Ms Y did attend the conference.
  4. In response to my enquiries the Council said Ms Y attended the first part of a core group meeting, about her other grandchildren. But, the Council asked her to leave the second part of the meeting, that concerned Mr X’s children, and she did leave. The Council has provided a record of the meeting. This reports Ms Y left the meeting.
  5. In response to my draft decision Mr X said Ms Y attended a meeting about his children and she was friends with a member, Mrs A. Mr X said Mrs A should not have been in the meeting as she had a conflict of interest.
  6. Mr X provided documents which show:
    • Ms Y attended a meeting about her grandchildren, for whom Mr X is not the named father. Mrs A was present at this meeting.
    • Mrs A was also present at the meeting concerning Mr X’s children.
  7. There is no evidence to show Ms Y attended the meeting about Mr X’s children.

Vexatious customers’ procedure

  1. In December 2017 the Council sent Mr X a warning letter under its vexatious customers’ procedure. Then, by letter of 17 January 2018, the Council told Mr X it was restricting his contact under this procedure. The Council told Mr X he had a right to appeal and it would review the decision in six months.
  2. Mr X contacted the Ombudsman as he was unhappy about the Council’s decision. The Ombudsman said it would not investigate the complaint as there was no evidence of fault in the Council’s actions.
  3. Mr X then told the Ombudsman he did not appeal to the Council due to mental health issues.
  4. In response to my enquiries the Council said Mr X had asked to appeal and it had asked for further details to support this. However, it later found it had sent this to the wrong email address. The Council says the decision is due for a review and it will consider all the information Mr X has provided when carrying out this review.
  5. In response to my draft decision Mr X said the Council has carried out its review and upheld its original decision. He maintains the Council’s decision is wrong.

Statutory children’s complaints process

  1. In October 2016 Mr X complained to the Council about a social worker. He said the social worker had made incorrect reports about him to the police. And, the social worker had shared information about him in breach of data protection laws.
  2. Mr X complains to the Ombudsman that the Council failed to consider this complaint under the statutory children’s complaints procedure.
  3. In response to my enquiries the Council said it tried to resolve complaints with Mr X locally and he did not make a formal complaint until April 2017. The Council considered this April 2017 complaint under the statutory process.

Complaint handling

  1. Mr X says the Council did not follow a proper complaints process and ignored his correspondence.
  2. In response to my enquiries the Council said it did not ignore complaints but Mr X sent many emails to many different people. Therefore, it took time to clarify the new issues that needed a response. It has provided a chronology of its contact with Mr X from October 2016 to February 2018.

Findings

  1. Mr X has taken more than 12 months to complain to the Ombudsman. However, as his complaints have been ongoing I consider it reasonable to exercise discretion to investigate beyond the last 12 months.

Conflict of interest

  1. Mr X is not a suitable person to complain about any conflict of interest due to Ms Y and Mrs A attending a conference concerning children for whom he is not the named father.
  2. The Council has provided evidence to show Ms Y did not attend Mr X’s children’s Child Protection conference.
  3. There is no evidence of fault causing significant injustice in the presence of Mrs A at Mr X’s children’s Child Protection conference.

Vexatious customers’ procedure

  1. The Council did not give Mr X a reasonable chance to appeal against its decision to restrict his contact, as it sent a follow up email to the wrong email address. This was fault. However, the Council said it would review its decision, taking into account all the available information.
  2. The Council has since reviewed its decision and it continues to restrict Mr X’s communications. I appreciate Mr X disagrees with the Council’s decision but I cannot say the Council’s decision is wrong, where it has followed a correct decision making process. I will not investigate this matter further as I believe it is unlikely I would find fault.

Statutory children’s complaints process

  1. Mr X’s complaint of October 2016 concerned social services treatment of him. The complaint was not made on behalf of his children and it was not about social services treatment of his children. The statutory children’s complaints process was set up to ensure children’s complaints are heard. The Council did not have to use this process to consider Mr X’s complaint. I therefore find no fault by the Council in this regard.
  2. Mr X says the data breach he complained of put his children at risk of harm. However, I consider the alleged information sharing by the social worker was to prevent any harm to the children. In any event, I consider the Information Commissioner’s Office is better placed to consider alleged of breaches of data protection.

Complaint handling

  1. I have reviewed the Council’s chronology of contact with Mr X. This shows it responded to matters raised by Mr X up to January 2018. I note Mr X contacted different Council officers and did not receive direct replies from each. However, his complaints were forwarded internally to one complaint officer who then replied to him.
  2. In its letter of 17 January 2018 the Council provided a final response and restricted Mr X’s contact under its vexatious customers’ procedure. Thereafter Mr X continued to contact the Council about matters it had already addressed and so the Council did not respond further. I do not find any fault by the Council in this regard.
  3. I note Mr X has ongoing complaints with the Council. However, I have investigated matters up to February 2018 only. This is because the Ombudsman must give the Council a reasonably opportunity to investigate complaints first.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. This is because I find no evidence of fault causing significant injustice in how the Council dealt with Mr X’s complaints.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not investigated Mr X’s complaints about data protection breaches and the actions of a social worker. This is because there are other bodies better placed to deal with these complaints.
  2. Mr X has complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office about alleged breaches of data protection. And, he has complained to the Health and Care Professions Council about the actions of a social worker.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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