The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: the Council failed to follow the statutory children’s complaint process by refusing to take Mrs B’s complaint to stage two. The Council should now arrange for a stage two investigation.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mrs B, complained about the way the Council dealt with a child protection investigation. Mrs B says the Council:
- failed to properly consider the matter;
- failed to consider all the evidence; and
- showed bias in its completion of an assessment.
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)
- 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)
- Under the information sharing agreement between the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), we will share this decision with Ofsted.
How I considered this complaint
- As part of the investigation, I have:
- considered the complaint and Mrs B's comments;
- considered Government guidance ‘Getting the best from complaints; and
- considered the Ombudsman’s guidance on the children’s statutory complaints process.
What I found
What should have happened
- 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 (the guidance), explains councils' responsibilities in more detail.
- The guidance says who can complain and what they can complain about. This includes concerns about the appropriateness of a service, unwelcome or disputed decisions, and assessments and reviews.
- 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. The guidance says once a council has accepted a complaint at stage one, it must ensure the complaint continues to stages two and three if that is the complainant's wish.
- At stage two, councils appoint an investigator and an independent person who is responsible for overseeing the investigation. 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 Ombudsman would normally expect a council and complainant to follow the full complaints procedure. The guidance sets out the circumstances in which a complaint can be referred to the Ombudsman without completing all three stages. This can only happen when the stage two investigation is robust with all complaints upheld. Councils must show they agree to meet most of the complainant's desired outcomes and have a clear action plan for delivery.
- The Ombudsman has issued a focus report on the children’s statutory complaints process. This makes clear the decision about progressing to stage two lies with the complainant, not the council.
- Mrs B complained to the Council about its investigation of a safeguarding concern. Mrs B complained the Council failed to properly consider the concern raised, showed bias in the assessment process, failed to consider all the evidence and produced an inaccurate assessment. The Council considered that complaint at stage one and did not uphold it. Mrs B asked for the complaint to go to stage two. The Council held a meeting with Mrs B to discuss her concerns. Mrs B raised further concerns following that meeting. Mrs B again asked for the complaint to go to stage two. The Council declined to take the complaint to stage two as it did not consider the matters could be resolved during the complaints process.
- As I said in paragraphs 13, the decision about progressing a complaint to stage two lies with the complainant, not the Council. Government guidance is also clear once a complaint is accepted at stage one the Council has a responsibility to complete stages two and three if that is the complainant’s wish. Failure to comply with Government guidance and arrange a stage two investigation is therefore fault. There is no reason why the Council cannot complete a stage two investigation and I am satisfied Mrs B’s concerns extend further than the judgement reached by the social worker that completed the report. Mrs B also has concerns about bias in the completion of the assessment and failure to consider evidence, both of which can be considered at stage two. I therefore recommended the Council apologise to Mrs B for not arranging a stage two investigation. I also recommended the Council arrange a stage two investigation as a matter of priority and remind officers dealing with Children’s Act complaints of the need to follow Government guidance. The Council has agreed to my recommendations.
- Within one month of my decision the Council should:
- apologise to Mrs B for not arranging a stage two investigation;
- confirm it has moved Mrs B’s complaint to stage two of its process and has appointed an independent investigator; and
- remind officers dealing with Children’s Act complaints of the need to follow Government guidance.
- I have completed my investigation and uphold the complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman