The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained about the way allegations about him were investigated. We found there was fault by the Council as the progress of the matter was not reviewed as often as it should have been. The Council should also have responded more appropriately to Mr X’s complaint. The Council should apologise to Mr X for this and review its procedures.
- Mr X complains that the Council took too long to reach a decision about a child protection investigation into unfounded claims against him. He also complains that he was not given an opportunity to comment. Mr X complains the matter affected his mental health and he lost out on earnings during the period he was suspended from work.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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
- We spoke to Mr X and considered the concerns he raised. We contacted the Council to obtain information about what happened and its response to the complaint. We have been unable to share the information we received from the Council about the matter, but we have been able to consider it.
- Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered the comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
- The Derbyshire Safeguarding Children’s Board sets out procedures to follow if allegations are made against someone who has contact with children as part of their job.
- On receipt of an allegation the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) has a duty to review the information received and consider if the allegations meet the allegation threshold. Government guidance states if there is reason to suspect a child may suffer significant harm, a strategy discussion should take place.
- LADOs do not carry out investigations themselves. Rather, they provide advice and guidance to employers and they liaise with any other bodies involved. Their role is to ensure that concerns about professionals are recorded appropriately, monitored and that investigations are progressed in a timely and confidential way.
- Derbyshire Safeguarding Children’s Board’s policies state that it is in everyone's interest to resolve cases as quickly as possible with a fair and thorough investigation. The safeguarding board’s guidance states reviews should be conducted at regular intervals, at least monthly, but depending on the complexity of the case. Allegations should be investigated as a priority to avoid any delay.
- Any disciplinary action, including suspension, is a matter for the person’s employer. The employer should follow their disciplinary procedures.
- The guidance states the conclusion of any investigation should be clearly communicated to the employer, who is then responsible for communicating this to the individual along with any actions agreed within their investigation.
- The outcomes may be “Substantiated”, “False”, “Malicious”, “Unsubstantiated” or “Unfounded”. The Council’s guidance defines an unsubstantiated finding as “there is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the allegation. The term therefore, does not imply guilt or innocence.”
- Mr X complains about the way Derbyshire County Council (referred to as ‘the Council’ in this statement) dealt with an allegation made against him. He told us he was suspended from work by his employer in April 2019 while the matter was being investigated.
- A strategy meeting took place on 1 May 2019. A decision was made about next steps on 3 May 2019.
- Mr X remained suspended while his employer conducted an investigation of the issues. There is evidence his employer liaised with the LADO in September 2019. I understand Mr X’s employer concluded their investigation in October 2019 and Mr X was able to return to work.
- Mr X complained to the Council in October. He asked a question about his daughter and questioned why the investigation had taken six months. He also complained the finding from the investigation was ‘unsubstantiated’. He believed this was not appropriate and it should have been recorded as a ‘malicious’ or ‘false’ allegation.
- The Council’s response stated any queries or concerns Mr X had about his daughter’s welfare should be referred to a neighbouring county council. The Council stated Mr X should also raise his complaint about the delay with them. The Council stated it considered “unsubstantiated” was the correct outcome. As Mr X remained unhappy, he brought a complaint to the Ombudsman.
Was there fault by the Council
- Our investigation concerns Derbyshire County Council’s role in the events of Mr X’s complaint. The Council’s LADO was responsible for overseeing the handling of the allegations made against Mr X.
Delay in the Investigation
- I found the LADO’s initial decision to hold a meeting to discuss the matter was taken promptly. This was a decision he was entitled to make. It was Mr X’s employer’s decision to suspend him from employment while the allegations were investigated rather than the Council’s. So, I found no fault at the start of the process.
- However, the Council’s LADO had a role to monitor the investigation’s progress. Part of that role was to review it to ensure the matter was being progressed as quickly as possible. The LADO told us because of workload pressures, priority had to be given to other referrals being received and he did not follow up the matter after a month or as often as he would have liked. There is evidence of contact between the LADO and Mr X’s employer in September 2019, but this was some time after the investigation started. The lack of monitoring and review by the Council was fault.
Opportunity to comment
- We cannot consider a complaint against Mr X’s employer or the details of their investigation. I note Mr X was concerned that he was given no chance to comment on the allegations. However, the investigation itself was conducted by Mr X’s employer, not the Council. So, I find no fault by the Council in this regard.
- After the matter was decided, Mr X raised a complaint with the Council about delay. The Council’s response to this point referred him to a neighbouring county council. It may have been appropriate to refer questions about his daughter to another council, but, as Derbyshire County Council was overseeing the handling of the allegations about Mr X, directing Mr X elsewhere about delay in dealing with this was further fault.
- I have seen some details of the investigation that I am unable to share. I recognise that the length of the investigation had an impact on Mr X and I am mindful that I found fault in the two sections above. However, I do not consider the lack of review by the Council is likely to have had a significant impact on the length of the investigation, so the impact of the Council’s fault is limited.
- It is for the attendees at a strategy meeting to decide how the outcome of an investigation should be recorded. The decision was taken in this case to record an “unsubstantiated” decision. The relevant guidance notes that this outcome reflects no guilt or innocence and is used when there is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove allegations made. This was a decision the attendees of the strategy meeting were entitled to reach. We have no grounds to overturn or seek to amend a decision reached properly.
- The Council should apologise to Mr X for the lack of review and monitoring of the investigations being conducted and for the inappropriate referral to a neighbouring council about the delay. This should be done within four weeks of my final decision.
- The Council should consider what steps it needs to take to ensure that LADO investigations are reviewed and monitored in future in accordance with the Derbyshire Safeguarding Board’s policies. This should be done within eight weeks of my final decision.
- There was fault by the Council. I have now completed my investigation and closed my file.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman