Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 07 Dec 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complains that Council’s decision to escalate its child protection investigation was wrong and that it delayed in holding a meeting and cancelled another. He says the Council also breached his confidentiality, threatened him, and did not handle his complaint correctly. The Council is at fault in its complaint handling only, has caused injustice and has agreed a financial remedy.
- The complainant, who I refer to here as Mr X, says that the Council:
- wrongly escalated his case to PLO (public law outline) based on inaccurate information in a report by a social worker;
- failed to respond to his emails showing the inaccuracies concerned;
- delayed in holding the PLO meeting;
- cancelled a PLO meeting without explanation and failed to rearrange it;
- breached Mr X’s confidentiality by telling his father about his arrest;
- threatened him with the removal of his children; and
- wrongly denied him a panel review during the complaints process.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I spoke to Mr X and considered information provided by Mr X and the Council. I shared this draft statement with both parties and considered the Council’s comments before finalising my decision.
What I found
Child protection investigations and Public Law Outline (PLO)
- If a council suspects a child has suffered, or is at risk of, significant harm, it may carry out a child protection investigation. If the investigation substantiates the council’s concerns, the next step is a child protection conference, which is a meeting of professionals involved with the child. The conference may decide to place the child on a child protection plan if it concludes the child is at risk of significant harm. This is a plan which sets out what must be done to keep the child safe.
- If the concerns remain after the child protection plan has been put in place, and are sufficiently serious, the council may want to hold a PLO meeting. PLO stands for Public Law Outline and refers to a procedure the council must follow. The council will send a PLO letter – known as a pre-proceedings letter - to the child’s parent or carer outlining its concerns and inviting the parent or carer to the meeting. The point of the meeting is to discuss the concerns and put a new plan in place to stop them escalating further. If the council is not satisfied that sufficient change has occurred after this, the next step is often family court proceedings. The PLO stage is therefore an indicator that a council has very serious concerns about a child.
- Mr and Mrs X have three children. The family has been known to social services for many years because of concerns about alcohol misuse and domestic abuse. In July 2020, following a child protection conference, the children then aged 4,10 and 16, were put on child protection plans. The decision was based on information provided by the police. The police had several domestic violence incidents on record between Mr and Mrs X, none of which had resulted in prosecution.
- In October 2020 Mr X was arrested by police for assaulting his wife. No further action was taken, and Mr X was released without charge. Following the arrest, the Council decided to escalate the case to the PLO stage. Information was considered in November by a panel called a Legal Gateway Panel, which decided escalation was appropriate based on the number of incidents involving the couple and their lack of co-operation with the Council.
- The Council sent Mr and Mrs X a pre-proceedings letter in December 2020. The letter raised concerns about the number of domestic violence incidents between the couple including the October incident, which it said had occurred when the couple were drunk. It said Mrs X had advised of rent arrears of £1000 on the home address and that the Council was concerned Mr and Mrs X were spending money on alcohol instead of rent.
- The letter also said the parents had refused to hand over details of family members who could provide alternative accommodation for the children. It said this included a godparent who cared for one of the children after Mr X’s arrest in October. The letter said the police had arranged this as Mrs X was not able to care for the child due to alcohol consumption.
- A PLO meeting was held in January 2021. During the meeting Mr X said he disagreed he had assaulted his wife or been drunk at the time. He said his rent and arrears were paid direct to the landlord and it was therefore inaccurate to say that he prioritises drink over rent. The Council responded that Mr X had refused to share a breakdown of his finances with social workers.
- In March the Council cancelled a planned PLO review meeting without explanation. Mr X told me it was never re-arranged. In April the Legal Gateway Panel decided to initiate care proceedings. The children were later removed from their parents and placed with a relative.
- Mr X complained to the Council. He said the pre-proceedings letter was inaccurate and the PLO process unnecessary, and that the Council knew this and had refused to act. Specifically, he said the letter was inaccurate in that it said:
- Mr X had assaulted his wife in October 2020 when in fact he was helping her up after she fell;
- Mr X was drunk at the time when he had not been drunk as proven by the custody record;
- Police decided Mr X and his wife were unable to care for their child when in fact they had left their home key behind;
- There were increasing rent arrears on the family home due to Mr and Mrs X prioritising spending on alcohol, when the family’s rent was being paid direct to their landlord from their universal credit.
- Taking each complaint in turn:
- The case was wrongly escalated to PLO based on inaccurate information in a report by a social worker;
- Inaccuracies in the PLO letter;
- The PLO letter stated the Council had received a further report of domestic violence in October 2020 which detailed an assault on Mrs X by Mr X when both parties were “in drink”. Mr X said it was incorrect to say he had assaulted his wife in October 2020 when in fact he was helping her up after she fell. The Council has viewed the video Mr X says disproves this point and does not agree with his interpretation. I asked the Council for the original police report of the of the incident. It was not able to provide this. However, a later police report dated April 2021, as well as Council records based on the original police report, support the statement in the letter. There is no fault by the Council.
- Mr X said it was incorrect to say he was “in drink” at the time of the incident when he had not been drunk as proven by the custody record. Mr X shared the custody report with the Council which states that Mr X had been drinking but did not appear to be drunk “at this time”. The 2021 police report, as well as Council records based on the original police report, show that the police described Mr X as “in drink” at the time of the incident. Based on the evidence currently seen, there is no fault by the Council.
- The PLO letter stated that when a social worker visited Mr and Mrs X following the October arrest, they refused to provide details of the person who had cared for their youngest child on that night. It said the placement was facilitated by the police as they felt Mrs X had drunk too much to care for the child. Mr X told me this was incorrect, and that Mrs X went to stay with the person concerned because a house key had been left behind. The social worker’s report states Mrs X refused to answer questions about what had happened and asked Mr X to do the same. As the Council was unable to provide the initial police report I am unable to make a finding on why the child went to stay with another person that night. However I find that the Council was correct to say that Mr and Mrs X refused to provide details of the person concerned so that they could check the details with them. There is no evidence of fault by the Council.
- The PLO letter said Mrs X advised that she was unaware there were rent arrears of more than £1,000 on the family home. It said the Council’s housing department was considering options to recover this debt and that the Council was concerned that the parents had used their finances to buy alcohol instead of rent. Mr X said this was inaccurate as the family’s rent was being paid direct to their landlord from their universal credit. There is no response to this point in the complaint correspondence. The Council told me it had no record of a complaint on this point. However the Council itself provided me with a copy of a complaint from Mr X, dated February 2021, which stated that the claim about the arrears was untrue. Mr X further stated: “I sent screenshots of our joint claim of universal credit showing we had an agreement in place where were getting deductions paid direct… to reduce the arrears… again this email was ignored.” The Council told me that several arrangements with Mrs X about the arrears had failed. It provided evidence that the account was in arrears. The Council was not at fault in its statement on the PLO letter, however it is at fault for failing to respond to Mr X’s complaint about this.
- The Council’s handling of Mr X’s complaints about the inaccuracies in the PLO letter was, in my view, poor. The PLO letter is an extremely serious communication, and it is important that recipients feel they have been dealt with fairly.
- It would have been helpful if, during the formal complaints process, the Council had responded to each of the inaccuracies complained of in turn, with an explanation as to why it did not accept these were inaccuracies and/or why any disputed facts did not impact the PLO process.
The complaint could potentially have been dealt with at an earlier stage if this had been done. Because Mr X felt the Council had not dealt with his concerns properly, he continued to complain about the same issues, using the Council’s and his own time unnecessarily. This was injustice to Mr X.
- The Council told me it had difficulties communicating with Mr X about his complaint. It said its complaints team usually establish the key complaint components and provide early resolution by collaborating with families. It agreed to pay Mr X £100 for his time and trouble in bringing the complaint.
c) Delay in holding the PLO meeting;
- The Council told me the delay was due to Covid-19 which led to increase in cases being escalated to PLO status. The Council had already accepted the PLO meeting was delayed and apologized for this before the Ombudsman’s intervention. In my view this was an appropriate response.
d) Cancellation of the March PLO review meeting without explanation and failure to re-arrange
- The Council told me it had not received a complaint about this cancellation. The complaint is therefore premature and I will not investigate further.
- Breach of Mr X’s confidentiality and threatened removal of his children;
- Denial of a panel review during the complaints process
- The Council has agreed that within a month of my final decision it will pay Mr X £100 to remedy faults in its complaints handling.
- I have completed my investigation with a finding that the Council is at fault and has caused injustice. It has agreed a financial remedy.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman