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Plymouth City Council (16 017 765)

Category : Children's care services > Fostering

Decision : Closed after initial enquiries

Decision date : 20 Mar 2017

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Ombudsman will not investigate Mr A’s complaint about the Council’s response to allegations made by a social worker because it is unlikely investigation would lead to a different outcome.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I will refer to as Mr A, complains that the Council has failed to properly investigate false allegations made against him by a social worker.

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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’. 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:
  • it is unlikely we could add to any previous investigation by the Council, or
  • it is unlikely further investigation will lead to a different outcome.

(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)

  1. The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), as amended)
  2. We normally expect someone to refer the matter to the Information Commissioner if they have a complaint about data protection. However, we may decide to investigate if we think there are good reasons. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have considered what Mr A has said in support of his complaint and the final response the Council sent him. I have also taken account of Mr A’s comments on my draft decision.

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What I found

  1. Mr A states that a social worker made false allegations about him in a report. He regards the allegations as libellous and defamatory and states that the Council has agreed that there is no evidence to substantiate them. However, it has failed to remove the report from its records and has denied him the opportunity to escalate his complaint to Stage 2 of its complaints procedure. He also alleges the Council has breached data protection principles.
  2. He complains that, as a result of the Council’s actions, he has been denied the opportunity to become a foster carer.
  3. In response to Mr A’s complaint the Council says he met with officers after Stage 1 of the procedure and agreed not to escalate the complaint. It has declined to do so now. It has apologised for the distress he was caused, marked the report as inaccurate and has linked it with the information he has provided. Mr A disputes this, and argues that the Council prevented him from escalating the complaint.
  4. The Ombudsman will not investigate Mr A’s complaint because he could achieve nothing significant by doing so. Where a Council’s records are disputed or wrong, the Ombudsman does not ask for records to be destroyed. Rather, he normally expects a Council to attach material setting out an updated position or the complainant’s views. That appears to have happened already. So it is unlikely that investigation by the Ombudsman would lead to a different outcome.
  5. Mr A argues that it is not sufficient for the Council to refer to the allegations against him as inaccurate. Rather, he regards them as false and vindictive. This difference does not, in itself, provide grounds for the Ombudsman to intervene.
  6. The Ombudsman cannot investigate allegations of libel or defamation. These are matters which can only be decided in court. Mr A says he lacks the means to pursue the matter in the courts. That does alter the fact that the Ombudsman cannot consider such complaints.
  7. Breaches of data protection principles may be brought to the attention of the Office of the Information Commissioner. That is the appropriate way to pursue such complaints and it would be reasonable for Mr A to do so. The Ombudsman will not intervene.
  8. The Ombudsman will not normally investigate how a council has responded to a complaint when he decides not to investigate the substantive matter. In the circumstances of Mr A’s case, there is nothing significant to be gained from investigating the allegation that the Council has refused to escalate the complaint, as the Ombudsman is not investigating the substantive matter.

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Final decision

  1. The Ombudsman will not investigate Ms A’s complaint because it is unlikely investigation would lead to a different outcome.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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