The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: We uphold Mr X and Mrs Y’s complaint. Essex County Council delayed handling their complaint at stage two of the children’s statutory complaints procedure. The Council has agreed to complete its stage two investigation. It will offer to make Mr X and Mrs Y a payment to remedy the time and trouble its delay caused them.
- The complainants, whom I shall call Mr X and Mrs Y, say Essex County Council (the Council) did not consider the mental health needs and behavioural issues of a child they fostered between March 2019 and August 2020. That left the child without support during that period. Also, Mr X and Mrs Y say the Council should backdate the enhanced weekly payment to March 2019.
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)
- Under our information sharing agreement, we will share the final decision with the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted).
How I considered this complaint
- I considered information provided by the complainant and the Council. I contacted the Council and invited it to remedy the injustice I had identified. I considered Mr X and Mrs Y’s comments on a draft version of this decision.
What I found
The statutory complaints procedure
- The law sets out a three-stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services. The accompanying statutory guidance, Getting the Best from Complaints, explains councils’ responsibilities in more detail.
- The first stage of the procedure is local resolution. Councils have up to 20 working days to respond.
- If a complainant is not happy with a council’s stage one response, they can ask that it is considered at stage two. At this stage of the procedure, councils appoint an investigator and an independent person who is responsible for overseeing the investigation. Councils have up to 13 weeks to complete stage two of the process from the date of request.
- If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the stage two investigation, they can ask for a stage three review by an independent panel. The Council must hold the panel within 30 days of the date of request, and then issue a final response within 20 days of the panel hearing.
- Mr X approached the Ombudsman to complain about the Council’s fostering service in January 2020. The Ombudsman asked Mr X to complain to the Council first.
- The Council provided a formal response in March 2020. Mr X returned to the Ombudsman. We said he needed to exhaust the Council’s statutory complaints procedure.
- Mr X told me he returned to the Council on 1 April 2020 to escalate his complaint. However, he said his complaint got lost due to a technical error by the Council.
- Mr X and Mrs Y chased the Council on 23 December 2020 and complained about the delays and specifically the lack of a backdated enhanced payment.
- The Council provided its stage one response on 15 January 2021. Mr X and Mrs Y were unhappy with the Council’s response and wanted to escalate their complaint.
- Between February and April 2021, the Council tried to resolve their concerns by email and offered them a meeting.
- After Mr X returned to the Council on 1 April 2020, it should have completed a stage two investigation within a maximum of 13 weeks. It did not do that, which is fault. Mr X and Mrs Y have been denied the opportunity for indepdent oversight at stage two of the statutory complaints’ procedure.
- Mr X’s complaint most likely got lost due to a technical error by the Council. Mr X has been waiting for stage two response since. When Mr X and Mrs Y chased the complaint in December 2020, he effectively started the statutory complaints’ procedure again. Mr X and Mrs Y have suffered time and trouble from the Council's delay.
- Within four weeks of the date of this final decision, the Council has agreed to make a payment to Mr X and Mrs Y of £240 to remedy the time and trouble they suffered from the Council’s delay dealing with the complaint.
- The Council has also offered to make a payment to Mr X and Mrs Y of £300 as a gesture of goodwill to remedy the upset they have suffered. This payment is independent of the Ombudsman’s recommendation of £240.
- Within thirteen weeks of the date of the final decision, the Council has agreed to complete its stage two investigation and write to Mr X and Mrs Y to inform them of the outcome, ensuring it provides them appropriate information about their rights under the process.
- We uphold this complaint with a finding of fault causing an injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman