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Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council (20 008 861)

Category : Children's care services > Fostering

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 18 Aug 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr and Mrs P complain about their de-registration as foster carers. The Council has properly considered their complaint and there are no grounds for the Ombudsman to question the outcome.

The complaint

  1. Mr and Mrs P complain about their de-registration as foster carers.
  2. They applied to the Independent Review Mechanism (IRM) for a review of the Council’s decision. The IRM agreed with the Council. The Council reviewed its decision and decided Mr and Mrs P should remain de-registered.
  3. Mr and Mrs P then complained to the Council. The Council followed the Children Act complaints process. An independent investigator at the second stage did not uphold their complaint about their deregistration, but the complaint review panel at the third stage recommended the Council reconsider. The Council declined.
  4. Mr and Mrs P said they would apply for Judicial Review of the Council’s decision, but the time limit has now passed. They complained to the Ombudsman instead.
  5. Mr and Mrs P wish to challenge the evidence on which the Council, and the IRM, made their decisions about their de-registration. In particular, they wish to challenge the Council’s finding a child they fostered suffered harm when discharged from hospital against medical advice following a minor accident. They believe their actions were in line with their fostering agreement. They say the hospital did not tell them they were acting against medical advice or question their decision, and they disagree the child came to any harm as a result. In any event, they dispute whether a single incident amounts to ‘harm’ for the purposes of deregistration.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have considered the Council’s response to Mr and Mrs P’s complaint about its decision to de-register them as foster carers following the review by the IRM. I have not considered the Council’s decision to de-register them.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. 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)
  2. 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 have considered:
    • Information provided by Mr and Mrs P’s representative, including all their complaint correspondence with the Council.
  2. I invited Mr and Mrs P, their representative, and the Council to comment on my draft decision.

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What I found

  1. The Ombudsman is a review, not an appeal. I do not decide whether Mr and Mrs P are suitable foster carers or whether the child they fostered suffered harm. This is the Council’s job. The Ombudsman cannot question Council decisions made without fault.
  2. Further, the Ombudsman does not approach complaints in the same way a Court might consider a challenge to a council’s decision. Our job is to consider whether maladministration has caused injustice. We have broad discretion about what we investigate, the way we investigate, the information we need to make a decision, the tests we apply and the remedies we recommend.
  3. Mr and Mrs P, through their representative, presented a detailed rebuttal of the case against them. They questioned the evidence on which the Council based its finding their actions harmed the child the fostered. They disagree the child suffered harm. They invited the Ombudsman to conclude the Council has misinterpreted the evidence and recommend the Council re-take its decision on their suitability as foster carers.
  4. The Council, on the other hand, stands by its decision. It pointed out that the question of harm was only one factor in its decision to deregister Mr and Mrs P.
  5. The Council arranged for Mr and Mrs P’s complaint to be considered under the Children Act complaints process. This is a formal procedure, set out in law, which councils must follow to investigate certain types of complaint. It involves:
    • a written response from the Council (Stage 1);
    • the appointment of an independent investigator to prepare a report (Stage 2); and, if the person making the complaint requests
    • an independent panel to consider their representations (Stage 3).
  6. When a council has investigated a complaint under the Children Act complaints process, the Ombudsman would not normally re-investigate it. We may consider whether a council has properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigator and review panel, and any remedy the Council offers.
  7. I am satisfied the independent investigator conducted a through and fair investigation of Mr and Mrs P’s complaint, and the independent review panel properly considered their representations. I do not intend to investigate further.
  8. The independent investigator disagreed with the Council’s finding Mr and Mrs P’s actions harmed the child they fostered, but she found no fault with the Council’s decision to de-register them as foster carers. Her detailed report includes examples of ‘standards of care’ concerns the Council raised with Mr and Mrs P before their deregistration.
  9. The review panel agreed with the independent investigator’s finding that Mr and Mrs P’s actions did not cause harm, noting ‘extensive mitigating factors’. On this basis the panel recommended the Council reconsider its decision to deregister them.
  10. The Council does not accept the conclusions of the independent investigator or the review panel on the question of ‘harm’. Further, the Council says the question of harm was only one factor in its decision to deregister Mr and Mrs P. The Council has not changed its mind.
  11. Mr and Mrs P’s complaint to the Ombudsman is essentially an appeal against the Council’s decision to de-register them. They seek to challenge the evidence on which the Council based its decision and the weight accorded to it in the Council’s decision making. These matters are outside our remit. The Council has followed the correct process to de-register Mr and Mrs P, which included an appeal to the IRM. The Ombudsman cannot question the merits of decisions taken without fault.
  12. Mr and Mrs P describe the Council’s decision to de-register them as Wednesbury unreasonable: a decision so unreasonable no reasonable authority could ever have come to it.
  13. The decision that Mr and Mrs P should be de-registered as foster carers was made by the Council’s Fostering Panel, upheld by the IRM and confirmed by the Council’s Agency Decision Maker. It was endorsed by the independent investigator and independent person. It is not, therefore, a decision that no reasonable authority could ever have come to. It has been reached, independently, on four separate occasions. On each occasion, Mr and Mrs P have had an opportunity to make their case and put forward their own evidence.
  14. Taking all of these factors into account, I find no fault with the Council’s decision not to follow the recommendations of the complaint review panel. I am satisfied the Council properly considered Mr and Mrs P’s complaint. There are no grounds for me to question the Council’s decision not to follow the panel’s recommendations or investigate the matter further.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. The Council has properly considered Mr and Mrs P’s complaint and there are no grounds for the Ombudsman to question the outcome.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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