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Surrey County Council (20 011 704)

Category : Children's care services > Other

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 16 Jul 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: We will not investigate Mr X’s complaint because the outcome he seeks is being considered by us in another complaint Mr X’s representative has submitted on his behalf. We have decided to discontinue this investigation to avoid duplication.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains the Council refuses to escalate his complaint to Stage 3 of the complaints process and has failed to follow our recommendation from a previous complaint to amend inaccuracies in the information it received from another Council (Council B).

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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. We can decide whether to start or discontinue an investigation into a complaint within our jurisdiction. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 24A(6) and 34B(8), as amended)
  3. 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 considered information provided by Mr X and the Council, including details of previous complaints to the Council and to the Ombudsman.
  2. Mr X and the Council were given the opportunity to comment on a draft of this decision. I considered the comments from Mr X and the Council before I made a final decision.

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What I found

Relevant law and guidance

  1. The Children Act 1989 (the regulations) established the requirement for councils to have a formal representations procedure to deal with complaints about local authority functions under Part 3 of the Act and some sections of Parts 4 and 5.
  2. In 2006 guidance was issued to accompany the regulations ‘Getting the Best from Complaints: Social Care Complaints and Representations for Children, Young People and Others’.
  3. The law 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 outcome of the stage 2 investigation, they can ask for a stage 3 review.
  4. Regulation 18 provides a statutory deadline to request a stage 3 review panel (20 working days from receipt of the Council’s adjudication letter). Regulation 18(2) states reasons for the complainant’s dissatisfaction with the outcome of the [stage 2] investigation must be set out in the request to the local authority.

What happened

  1. Mrs X first complained to the Council about the way it handled safeguarding for Mr Y and it making decisions based on inaccurate information in December 2017. There were 22 parts to her complaint at stage 2. The Investigating Officer (IO) did not fully uphold any of Mrs X’s complaints.
  2. Mrs X requested her complaints to be escalated to stage 3. She brought her complaint to us and in December 2018 we found that the Council should arrange a stage 3 review panel.
  3. The stage 3 review panel was held in February 2019. It reviewed all 22 complaints. The panel upheld 7 parts of the complaint, partially upheld 8 parts made no finding on three parts and did not uphold four parts. The panel made six recommendations. The Council agreed with the panel’s findings and recommendations.
  4. Ms X remained unhappy with the way the Council investigated her complaints and brought another complaint against it to us. We did not find the Council at fault for:
    • the way the stage 3 panel considered her complaints;
    • it not directing parts of her complaint to other services;
    • not referring its social workers to the relevant regulator;
    • the services it provided to Mr Y; and
    • the decision to put Mr Y on a child protection plan.
  5. However, we did find the Council had not implemented the stage 3 panel’s recommendation to annotate the incorrect records it holds regarding Mr Y. The Council agreed to annotate its records by the end of March 2020.
  6. Although we asked the Council to meet with Ms X and Mr Y (the complainants) to agree the annotations, in practice, because it had received the information from another Council, Council B, it was considered appropriate for Council B to amend its records with Mr Y’s agreement and then send the amendments to Surrey.
  7. We found the Council tried on several occasions to obtain the agreed amendments from Council B but it was unsuccessful. We were satisfied the Council had made reasonable attempts to complete this action but the reason it was unable to was not its fault.
  8. Meanwhile, Mrs Y submitted a further 17 complaints to the Council which were connected to the matters previously complained about. These complaints were also considered under the statutory complaints procedure. The complainants were unhappy with the Council’s stage 1 response and escalated their concerns to stage 2. At stage 2, the Council appointed an independent investigator again. At stage 2, 3 complaints were upheld, one was partially upheld, 7 were not upheld and 3 complaints no finding could be made.
  9. On 15 April 2020, the Council sent its adjudication letter to the complainants. The Council agreed with the independent investigator’s findings and apologised for the errors and omissions the stage 2 report identified. It also agreed to action the recommendations in the report.
  10. The Council advised the complainants of their right to request a stage 3 review panel and they were asked to let the Council know within 20 days.
  11. Mr X replied to the Council on the same day and stated that he wished ‘to escalate his concerns’. Mrs Y then sent the Council an email the following day about the Council failing to complete the Ombudsman’s recommendation of amending the information it received from Council B regarding Mr X.
  12. On 17 April 2020, the Council provided the complainants with information regarding the stage 3 process and it asked them to confirm what outcomes they were seeking. The Council also advised that it was unable to complete the Ombudsman’s recommendation because Council B would not provide it with the amendments. It advised the complainants that the Ombudsman was satisfied that the Council had made reasonable attempts to complete the recommendation.
  13. On 27 November 2020, the complainants sent their reasons for their request to escalate their complaint to stage 3.
  14. On 11 January 2021, the Council responded to each point raised by the complainants. The Council went on to say it did not believe it was reasonable or proportionate to consider the request for escalation to stage 3. The Council’s understanding was information from Council B was being sought so it could make the amendments, the reasons for escalation to stage 3 were largely about the amendments and the concerns were similar to those addressed previously by the Council and also the Ombudsman. The Council did not consider it was reasonable or proportionate to revisit matters.
  15. The Council was of the view the complainants were seeking to make inappropriate use of the complaints process to secure changes to data it holds about Mr X without evidence to support the request for rectification.
  16. The complainants were directed to the Ombudsman.

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Analysis

  1. In this complaint, Mr X is unhappy about the Council’s refusal to escalate his complaint to stage 3 and the Council’s failure to amend the information it received from Council B about him. The outcome Mr X is seeking is for the information to be amended.
  2. In accordance with the regulations, the complainants were required to request a stage 3 review panel within 20 working days of receiving the adjudication letter from the Council and include reasons for the escalation. Mr X’s request and Mrs Y’s subsequent email sent to the Council within the 20 working days did not set out the reasons why they were dissatisfied with the outcome of the stage 2 investigation. Mr X stated he would like his concerns escalated and Mrs Y stated she was unhappy about the Council not completing a recommendation from the Ombudsman regarding a previous complaint.
  3. Instead of providing his reasons for escalation with his request within 20 days, Mrs Y did not provide the reasons on Mr X’s behalf until 7 months after receiving the adjudication letter. This is not in keeping with the statutory deadline provided by the regulations at paragraph 10. The complainants are aware of the statutory complaints procedure due to the number of complaints they have had considered under it since 2017. I can see no reason why they could not meet the statutory deadline by submitting their reasons with the request.
  4. Since 2016, Mr X and Mrs Y have submitted several complaints about the same matters to the Council, Council B, the Information Commissioner, the Ombudsman and other bodies. The Ombudsman is currently investigating a complaint from Mrs Y against Council B where we have recommended it provides the Council with the amendments made by the complainants. Our investigation of Mrs Y’s complaint against Council B addresses the complainant’s concerns and more importantly, it sets out a coordinated plan to appropriately remedy the injustice to Mr X. This will provide Mr X with the outcome he is seeking in this complaint. I do not consider it appropriate to run concurrent investigations to consider the same outcomes. For these reasons, I have decided to discontinue my investigation into this complaint.

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Final decision

  1. We have decided to discontinue our investigation into this complaint because the outcome Mr X is seeking is being considered in another complaint of his by us.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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