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Stoke-on-Trent City Council (21 000 968)

Category : Children's care services > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 28 Sep 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mrs X complains about the Council’s support for Ms Y’s children and about a delay in considering her complaint. The Council is at fault as it delayed in completing the stage 2 investigation into Ms Y’s complaint and wrongly refused to accept Mrs X’s request for a stage 3 review. The faults by the Council caused distress and uncertainty to Ms Y and caused uncertainty and avoidable time and trouble to Mrs X. The Council has agreed to remedy this injustice by making payments to Mrs X and Ms Y to acknowledge the uncertainty and avoidable time and trouble caused.

The complaint

  1. Mrs X complains on behalf of Ms Y. She complains that the Council:
  • the Council failed to properly safeguard and support the care needs of Ms Y’s children through the early help and child in need processes and was biased against her.
  • the Council delayed in completing stage two of the statutory complaints procedure and refusing her request for her complaint to be escalated to stage three. This caused distress to Mrs X and Ms Y and they were denied the opportunity to have the complaint considered by a review panel.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated Mrs X complaints about the Council’s delay in completing stage two of the statutory complaints procedure and its refusal to escalate the complaint to stage three.

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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 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)
  2. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We do not start or may decide not to continue with an investigation if we decide we could not add to any previous investigation by the organisation. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6))
  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)
  4. We cannot investigate matters which involve the commencement or conduct of civil proceedings before any court of law. (Local Government Act 1974, schedule 5(1))

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have considered the complaint and the information provided by Mrs X and the Council, including the reports of the independent investigator and independent person at stage 2. I have invited Mrs X and the Council to comment on the draft decision. I considered the comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

Children’s Services Statutory Complaints Procedure

  1. The law sets out a three stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services and the timescale for those procedures. At stage 2 of this procedure, the Council appoints an Independent Investigator and an Independent Person (who is responsible for overseeing the investigation). The stage 2 investigation should take a maximum of 65 working days. If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the stage 2 investigation, they can ask for a stage 3 review. They should make this request within 20 working days and set out the reasons for their dissatisfaction with the outcome of the investigation. The Council then has 30 working days to convene the stage 3 review panel.

What happened

  1. In early 2019 Mrs X made a complaint to the Ombudsman that the Council had failed to support and safeguard Ms Y’s children through the early help and child in need processes. We generally consider a complaint should complete the statutory complaints process before we will consider it. The Council agreed to consider Mrs X’s complaint through the statutory complaints procedure starting at stage 2 so we discontinued our investigation. We noted the investigation and Council’s response to it should be completed within 65 working days.
  2. The Council did not escalate Mrs X’s complaint to stage two until late April 2019. In May 2019 the Council appointed an independent investigator to carry out the investigation and an independent person to oversee it. They met with Mrs X and Ms Y in June 2019. Mrs X and Ms Y’s statement of complaint was agreed in August 2019. The independent investigator completed her report in late December 2019 and the independent person completed her report in early January 2020.
  3. The independent investigator and independent person upheld some of Mrs X’s and Ms Y’s 31 complaints. These included the delay in starting the stage 2 investigation. The Council considered the findings in late August 2020 and sent an adjudication letter to Mrs X and Ms Y. The Council agreed with the investigators’ recommendations. It also offered a payment of £250 to Mrs X and Ms Y in recognition of the delay in escalating the complaint to stage 2 and in receiving the adjudication letter.
  4. The adjudication letter also set out Mrs X’s right to request a stage 3 review panel within 20 days of receiving the adjudication letter.
  5. In early September 2020 Mrs X contacted the Council and requested more time to request her complaint be considered by a review panel. The Council agreed to extend the deadline to the end of October 2020. Mrs X then sent an email to the Council asking for an update. The Council advised Mrs X that she needed to provide details about why she was unhappy with the stage 2 investigation and what she was seeking as an outcome.
  6. Mrs X provided a broad outline of why she was unhappy with the stage 2 investigation in November 2020. In her email she said would elaborate on the broad points at a later date and provide supporting evidence from other professionals. The Council did not respond to this email.
  7. In January 2021 Mrs X contacted the Council to say they had not heard anything further. The Council apologised for a breakdown in communication and noted from Mrs X’s email of November 2020 that she was not in a position to provide a clear explanation of why she was unhappy with stage 2. The Council asked her to provide this information by 16 February 2021. Mrs X asked for more time but the Council refused to allow a further extension.
  8. The Council sent a deadlock letter to Mrs X at 17:42 on 16 February 2021. This advised the Council had not received her stage 3 complaint so it had now completed its consideration. The Council advised Mrs X of her right to make a complaint to the Ombudsman.
  9. Mrs X submitted her detailed request for a stage 3 review at 18:44 on 16 February 2021. The Council declined to consider her request.

Analysis

  1. The Council’s handling of Mrs X and Ms Y’s complaint from stage 2 onwards was poor. The Council delayed in commencing the stage 2 investigation which then took in excess of 65 working days. The Council then took a further eight months to issue the adjudication letter. The independent investigation and independent person issued their reports in December 2019 and early January 2020 which is before the COVID-19 pandemic. I therefore consider the timescale of approximately 18 months to carry out the stage 2 investigation to be excessive and is fault.
  2. Mrs X outlined her broad reasons for disagreeing with the stage 2 investigation in November 2020 which the Council did not respond to. The Council later acknowledged a breakdown in communication. I also consider the Council should have explored further with Mrs X what information she wanted to provide. It should have considered whether it could accept her broad reasons as a request for a stage 3 review without her providing additional information or providing that information at a later date. I am mindful Mrs X requested more time to submit her stage 3 request on several occasions but the failure to deal with her email potentially delayed her request for a stage 3 review.
  3. On, balance, I consider the Council is at fault for not accepting Mrs X’s email of 16 February as a request for a stage 3 review. The Council’s email of early February 2021 advised Mrs X to provide her reasons by 16 February 2021. But the letter did not give a time deadline. The Council’s decision to issue a deadlock letter at 17:42 on 16 February 2021 was therefore hasty and unfair. Mrs X submitted her detailed request on 16 February 2021 so the Council should have accepted it.
  4. In commenting on my draft decision Mrs X has said the Council has been discriminatory towards Ms Y as it did not take account of Ms Y’s needs when it refused more time to request a stage three review in February 2021. The Council granted more time for Mrs X to submit the request on several occasions between September 2020 and February 2021. I therefore do not consider there is evidence to show the Council was discriminatory towards to Ms Y.

Injustice

  1. The delay of approximately 18 months in completing the stage 2 investigation will have caused frustration and distress to Ms Y. The failure to consider whether Mrs X’s email of November 2020 setting out her and Ms Y’s broad reasons for requesting a stage 3 was sufficient potentially delayed their request and put Mrs X to avoidable time and trouble in chasing the Council for a response. The Council’s failure to accept Mrs X’s request of 16 February 2021 denied her and Ms Y the opportunity to have their complaint considered at a stage 3 review.
  2. I have carefully considered whether I should recommend the Council now convenes a stage 3 review panel. But, on balance, I do not consider this will achieve anything for Mrs X and Ms Y. The events surrounding Ms Y’s substantive complaint concerns the actions of the Council in 2017 and 2018. It is unlikely a stage 3 review panel could now carry out an effective review due to the passage of time.
  3. I have also considered if I should investigate Ms Y’s substantive complaint but I do not consider I could add anything to the stage 2 investigation or determine the adequacy of that investigation as the key events are three to four years old. Furthermore, some of Ms Y’s concerns relate to how the Council dealt with court reports. We do not have jurisdiction to consider the preparation and content of reports ordered by a court or officers’ conduct in court.
  4. The Council’s delay of approximately 18 months in completing the stage 2 investigation has contributed to the fact the events surrounding Ms Y’s substantive complaint are now too old to be effectively considered by as stage 3 review or investigated. As a result Mrs X and Ms Y have some uncertainty about what the outcome of a stage 3 review would have been or the outcome of an investigation. The Council should remedy this injustice.
  5. The Council offered a payment of £250 to Mrs X and Ms Y for the avoidable time and trouble caused by the delay in carrying out the stage 2 investigation. I consider the payment of £250 is sufficient and proportionate to acknowledge the avoidable time and trouble and uncertainty caused to Mrs X. However, I consider the Council should make a total payment of £500 to Ms Y to acknowledge the distress and uncertainty caused to her.

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Agreed action

  1. That the Council:
      1. Sends a written apology to Mrs X and Ms Y for the avoidable time and trouble, distress and uncertainty caused by the Council’s delay in completing the stage 2 investigation and failure to accept Mrs X’s request for a stage 3 review.
      2. Makes a payment of £250 to Mrs X to acknowledge the avoidable time and trouble and uncertainty caused to her
      3. Makes a payment of £500 to Ms Y for the distress and uncertainty caused to her.
      4. Reviews its procedures for considering complaints through the children’s services statutory complaints procedure to ensure it complies with the required timescales at each stage of the procedure. The Council should provide evidence to the Ombudsman of the action taken to improve its performance in this area.

The Council should take the action at a) to c) within one month and the action at d) within two months of my final decision.

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Final decision

  1. The Council is at fault as it delayed in completing the stage 2 investigation into Ms Y’s complaint and wrongly refused to accept Mrs X’s request for a stage 3 review. The faults by the Council caused distress and uncertainty to Ms Y and caused uncertainty and avoidable time and trouble to Mrs X. The Council agreed to remedy the injustice to Mrs X and Ms Y as recommended so I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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