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Northumberland County Council (20 005 184)

Category : Children's care services > Looked after children

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 23 Apr 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr Y complains about various aspects of the Council’s involvement in his life as a young person in care. The Ombudsman will not consider the complaint Mr Y brings because it is being investigated under the Council’s statutory children’s complaints procedure. Mr Y is entitled to approach the Ombudsman again once he receives a final response from the Council.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I will call Mr Y, complains about historic issues dating back to a period when he was in the care of the Council. In summary, his complaint says:
    • Despite being found not guilty of an alleged sexual assault against a child, the Council treated Mr Y as a perpetrator.
    • The Council failed to safeguard Mr Y when he lived with his great-grandparents and during a period in residential care.
    • The Council discriminated against Mr Y, as a young person in care, because he is gay.
    • Despite being found not guilty of an alleged sexual assault against a child, the Council breached Mr Y’s confidentiality and shared information about him with the wider community. This alienated Mr Y from his peers.
    • The Council wrongly placed Mr Y in a residential facility.
    • Mr Y left the care of the Council in 2000 when he was 17 years old and without appropriate planning and support. The Council failed to set up and maintain leaving care services.
    • When the adoption placement of Mr Y’s two sisters broke down, the Council failed to tell him and did not promote or encourage contact between Mr Y and his sisters.
    • When Mr Y first complained to the Council in 2015, it did not take his concerns seriously. The Council did not respond in an appropriate or timely way.
    • Mr Y complains the residential facility he was placed in was a fire hazard. He says staff were aware of the hazards but failed to appropriately respond.

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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 provide a free service but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we are satisfied with the actions a council has taken or proposes to take. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(7), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. During my involvement with Mr Y’s complaint, I had some email correspondence with his representative and considered the Council’s responses to his complaint, so far.
  2. I also enquired with the Council about the status of Mr Y’s complaint and consulted the relevant guidance around the statutory children’s complaints procedure.
  3. I issued a draft decision and invited comments from both parties before making a final decision. I received no comments.

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What I found

The statutory children’s complaints procedure

  1. The Children Act 1989 Representations Procedure (England) Regulations 2006 sets out a three-stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services. At Stage 2 of this procedure, the Council appoints an Investigating Officer and an Independent Person (who is responsible for overseeing the investigation). If a complainant is unhappy with the result of the Stage 2 investigation, they can ask for a Stage 3 review.
  2. If a council has investigated something under this procedure, the Ombudsman would not normally re-investigate it unless we consider that investigation was flawed. However, we may look at whether a council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigation.
  3. The Ombudsman receives significant numbers of complaints about the way in which councils have considered, or not, complaints under the procedure.
  4. If a complaint can be considered under the procedure, we would normally consider it premature to us until it had been through all three stages. The statutory guidance ‘Getting the Best from Complaints’ is clear that once a council has accepted a complaint under the procedure, unless it is resolved to both parties’ satisfaction, the complainant should go through all three stages.
  5. Only in limited circumstances will the Ombudsman look at complaints before the Council has completed the statutory procedure. Those circumstances apply when:
    • the stage two has delivered a robust report, a complete adjudication and all complaints (or all significant complaints) have been upheld; and
    • the Council has provided a clear action plan for delivery and agrees to meet most or all the complainant’s desired outcomes.
  6. Contrary to the guidance which suggests a complaints manager can approach us to consider a complaint early, the Local Government Act 1974 prevents us from accepting complaints from councils.

Mr Y’s complaint

  1. Mr Y approached the Ombudsman, via his representative, in September 2020. He was dissatisfied at the time taken by the Council to resolve his complaint under the statutory procedure.
  2. When Mr Y approached us, we enquired with the Council about the status of his complaint. The Council said that it was ready to share a copy of the draft ‘stage two’ report, but that Mr Y had expressed his wish to review the report in person with the Investigating Officer (IO) and the Independent Person (IP). The Council said it was considering a way forward in light of the COVID-19 restrictions in place at the time.
  3. The Council issued the draft report on 21 October 2020 and agreed to a virtual meeting with Mr Y to discuss the issues before any final adjudication. Shortly after, Mr Y’s legal representatives issued a letter to the Council about a possible legal claim.
  4. The Ombudsman at first decided to pass this case for investigation because there seemed to be an ongoing impasse between Mr Y and the Council. We did not want the complaint investigation to drift unnecessarily.
  5. Meanwhile, Mr Y asked the Council for an extension to the usual 20 working day deadline for seeking a review at Stage 3. The Council agreed to the deadline suggested by Mr Y: 24 March 2021.
  6. Mr Y’s case was allocated for investigation by the Ombudsman in February. We decided, after reviewing the information, that it was appropriate in the circumstances for Mr Y and the Council to continue with a Stage 3 review before we investigated his complaint. This is because Mr Y’s case did not meet the limited criteria for an early referral to the Ombudsman.
  7. For this reason, I have decided to discontinue the Ombudsman’s investigation to allow the Council to complete the Stage 3 review.

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Final decision

  1. I have discontinued our investigation for the reasons set out in this statement.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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