The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: the Council did not delay providing Ms B advice about travel arrangements for her foster child. The Council delayed dealing with a complaint but did not treat Ms B as an unreasonably persistent complainant. An apology for the delayed complaint response is satisfactory remedy for the time and trouble Ms B had to go to pursuing her complaint.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Ms B, complained the Council:
- delayed approving alternative travel arrangements for her and her foster child when an island she was staying on was subject to a freak weather event;
- delayed investigating her complaint; and
- treated her as an unreasonably persistent complainant when she was seeking answers to legitimate questions.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Ombudsman investigates complaints of fault where someone says it has caused them injustice. If the Ombudsman finds fault but no injustice, he will not ask a Council to provide a remedy. If he finds both fault and injustice, he may ask for a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1))
- 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
- As part of the investigation, I have:
- considered the complaint and Ms B's comments;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided;
- considered Ms B’s comments on my draft decision and the documents she provided; and
- gave the Council an opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
What I found
- Ms B was a foster carer and had taken a foster child abroad on holiday to Dominica in 2015.
- On 29 August 2015 a storm hit Dominica.
- On 31 August Ms B’s sister spoke to a Council officer by telephone as Ms B was concerned the child would be late returning to school as they were stuck on the island. Ms B’s sister told the officer there was an option of taking a ferry to Antigua to fly to the UK but further storms were predicted. The Council told Ms B’s sister the child’s return to school was secondary to their safe return to the UK. The Council told Ms B’s sister she should be guided by the local authorities in Dominica regarding the best mode of travel.
- On 1 September Ms B contacted the Council and spoke to the emergency duty team. Ms B says that call took place on 31 August. The officer she spoke to advised her not to take the ferry to Barbados (although Ms B says it was a neighbouring island) until the Council obtained further clarification.
- The Council spoke to the Dominican Embassy on 1 September. The Embassy said Ms B should follow the directions by the travel airline/provider as well as the information provided locally on the island.
- The Council spoke to Ms B later that day and told her the Embassy had advised there were no ferries between Dominica and Barbados. Ms B told the officer about other transport options she knew of. Later that day Ms B told the Council her sister was speaking to the airline to see what contingency plans it had in place. I understand Ms B later asked the Council to confirm in writing she could take the ferry, which the Council did on 8 September. I understand Ms B’s partner and the foster child arrived back in the UK on 12 September.
- In January 2016 Ms B put in a complaint about the lack of support during the holiday crisis. The Council initially arranged a complaint meeting but put that on hold when an issue arose relating to Ms B’s partner. I understand the Council’s investigation into that matter completed in April 2016.
- On 25 October Ms B chased what was happening with her complaint. She contacted the Council again on 26 October and 1 and 16 November. The Council asked Ms B for more information on 16 November and responded to the complaint on 12 December.
- On 26 January 2017 the Council wrote to Ms B about the level of her communication with Council officers. The Council asked Ms B to communicate with two named officers who knew about her case. The letter advised no other members of the Council would communicate with her. The Council wrote to Ms B again on 13 February. The Council reminded Ms B it had asked her to communicate with one of two named officers depending on what her communication was about. The Council told Ms B if she did not do that it would have to consider implementing its unreasonable persistent vexatious complaints policy.
- Ms B says the Council told her not to take the ferry to a neighbouring island and then delayed putting in writing its agreement for her to take the ferry. Ms B says this meant her family had to stay in Dominica for one week longer than necessary. Ms B says this meant she incurred additional costs as she could not claim on her travel insurance because she could not take advantage of the alternative travel arrangements available.
- I have seen nothing in the documentary records to suggest the Council told Ms B she could not make alternative travel arrangements without first having something in writing from the Council. I have, however, seen documentary records showing the emergency duty team told Ms B not to take the ferry to Barbados on 1 September. I am satisfied though the Council followed that up by making contact with the High Commission for Dominica. The High Commission for Dominica confirmed although there had been talk about a ferry to Barbados that had not been confirmed and the government had not approved it. So, the information the Council gave Ms B about the ferry to Barbados was not inaccurate. I am satisfied the Council followed up on the information given by the emergency duty team by speaking to Ms B on 1 September 2015 to tell her about the information given by the High Commission for Dominica. It is clear from the various notes from that day that Ms B was talking to the airline to see what contingency plans were in place. That follows earlier advice from the Council to be guided by the local authorities in Dominica about the best mode of travel. It therefore does not seem to me the Council had told Ms B not to take advantage of any arrangements on the island. There is nothing in the documentary records to suggest Ms B was told to stay put or that she would need written authorisation from the Council before making travel arrangements. So, while I am aware Ms B’s family stayed on the island for an additional seven days I do not consider that was due to any fault by the Council.
- The Council delayed responding to the complaint from Ms B. Ms B put in her complaint in January 2016. However, the Council did not respond until December 2016. I am satisfied the initial delay was caused because the Council put a complaint meeting on hold pending investigation of allegations against Ms B’s partner. On balance, I do not criticise the Council for that delay. However, as I understand it, that matter was concluded in April 2016. I see no reason why the Council could not have responded to the complaint promptly after that. The delay between April and December 2016 is therefore fault. I recommend the Council apologise for that delay.
- Ms B says the Council treated her as an unreasonably persistent complainant when she just wanted answers to her questions. I can understand why Ms B was concerned about the Council treating her as an unreasonably persistent complainant given it asked her to correspond with specific officers. However, I am satisfied the Council’s intent was to advise Ms B of the two people most suited to deal with her concerns either about the complaints procedure or about fostering. That did not amount to applying the unreasonable persistent complaints policy to Ms B because it did not require her to contact only one named person for all her contact with the Council, as it would have done if the Council had formally applied the policy. I recognise the Council told Ms B it might decide to apply the policy to her given her level of contact with Council officers. However, there is no evidence the policy was formally applied. I therefore have no grounds to criticise the Council.
- Within one month the Council should apologise to Ms B for the delay dealing with her complaint.
- I have completed my investigation and found fault by the Council in part of the complaint which caused an injustice to Ms B. I am satisfied the action the Council will take is sufficient to remedy her injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman