The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr and Mrs B complain about Council officers who visited their home alleging sewage had been discharged from their property on to neighbouring land. The information does not suggest Mr and Mrs B suffered a significant injustice as a result of the Council’s decision to visit them. We are unable to say on balance that officers were at fault for the way they conducted the visits. Also, further investigation is unlikely to help us make sound findings on what happened. So, we have ended our investigation.
- The complainants, who I will refer to as Mr and Mrs B, complain about the conduct of Council officers who visited them twice wrongly alleging they had discharged sewage on to an adjacent field. Mr and Mrs B say the officers were aggressive, made unreasonable requests and threatened legal action. Mr and Mrs B also complain the Council did not acknowledge receipt of their complaint about the matter. Mr and Mrs B say that if they had not contacted the Council about their complaint they doubt they would have received a response.
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’. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe:
- the fault has not caused injustice to the person who complained, or
- the injustice is not significant enough to justify our involvement, or
- it is unlikely we could add to any previous investigation by the Council.
(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)
- We cannot investigate something that affects all or most of the people in a council’s area. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(7), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered Mr and Mrs B’s letter of complaint and the supporting documents they sent.
- I have also shared a draft version of this statement with Mr and Mrs B and the Council, and have considered the comments I have received in response.
What I found
- In January 2018 a Council environmental health officer visited Mr and Mrs B’s property in relation to reports of ponding on neighbouring land. Mr and Mrs B say the officer was very aggressive and asked for paperwork and details about the emptying of their sewage tank. Mr B says the officer only briefly flashed his identification card from under his jacket. Mr B says he was unsure who this person was as he did not have his hearing aid or glasses with him. Mr B says he told the officer to go and test the water if he was genuine.
- Mr and Mrs B say they contacted the tenant of the neighbouring land who said they had contacted the Council about water in the field but they had not mentioned sewage.
- The next day the Council officer returned with a colleague to Mr and Mrs B’s property. Mr and Mrs B say the officers persisted with unreasonable questions despite Mrs B telling them that Mr B was seriously ill. Mr and Mrs B say the officers asked to lift the lid on their sewage tank, and also said it was for them to prove they were not releasing sewage. Mr and Mrs B also say the officers threatened legal action. At this point the landowners drove past and told the Council officers they had no complaints about sewage, but their tenant had reported an increase in the amount of water in their field.
- Mr and Mrs B say the tenant later phoned the officers and told them they had gone too far because she had only reported water in the field and not sewage.
- The Council took no further action about the matter.
- Mr and Mrs B complained to the Council on 4 August about what happened. Mr and Mrs B could not complain before then because of Mr B’s ill health. Mr and Mrs B phoned the Council on 16 August to ask for an update on their complaint. Mr and Mrs B say the officer they spoke to said there was no complaints department and their letter was probably still in the post room. The officer phoned Mr and Mrs B back later that day to say he had found their letter and the Council would respond to it.
- The Council responded to the complaint on 23 August. The Council said:
- The officer’s notes of the first visit refer to Mr B being very evasive and slightly aggressive when the officer tried to discuss ponding of water in the neighbouring field and the emptying details of Mr B’s septic tank.
- The officer’s notes of the second visit refer to Mr B being very aggressive and defensive.
- There was a heated conversation between the landowner, who had driven past, and Mr and Mrs B.
- The landowner apparently accepted the ponding was not sewage related and since then there has been no further involvement by the Council.
- It was reasonable for the Council to investigate the ponding in the neighbouring field and part of the investigation was to find out whether this was caused by a leaking septic tank.
- I consider there are two aspects to Mr and Mrs B’s complaint. The first aspect to the complaint is about the decision to visit Mr and Mrs B’s property twice in relation to the issue of ponding in the neighbouring field. The second aspect to the complaint is about officers conduct during these visits.
- I do not have enough information to form a view on whether the Council was at fault for undertaking these visits. But, I do not consider further investigation is justified. This is because I do not consider Mr and Mrs B have suffered a significant injustice as a result of the Council’s decision to undertake these visits. The visits were on consecutive days and did not result in any further action being taken by the Council. The visits caused Mr and Mrs B some concern. But, putting to one side Mr and Mrs B’s complaint about the conduct of officers, which I will address below, I do not consider Mr and Mrs B suffered a significant injustice because of the Council’s decision to undertake the visits.
- Mr and Mrs B also complain about the conduct of officers during the visits. I have been provided with conflicting accounts of what happened. From the information available I cannot say on balance the officers were at fault. Also, it is unlikely further investigation would allow me to make sound findings about what happened. So, I have decided not to investigate this part of the complaint further.
- Mr and Mrs B say the officers’ actions were a waste of public money so detrimental to every council tax payer in the Council’s area. But, this does not mean I can investigate this matter. The law says we cannot investigate complaints which affect all or most of the people in a Council’s area. We cannot investigate a complaint that the Council has wasted public money because this affects all council tax payers in a council’s area, which is ‘all or most’ of the people in the Council’s area.
- Mr and Mrs B also complain about the Council’s handling of their complaint. But, the Council responded to the complaint relatively quickly and correctly signposted Mr and Mrs B to us. Mr and Mrs B are concerned the Council does not have an effective complaints procedure as indicated by the comments made by the officer they spoke to on the phone. But, we would not normally investigate a complaint about the Council’s handling of a complaint, when (as in this case) we are not investigating the actions which prompted the complaint. There is not enough evidence of fault to warrant further investigation by the Ombudsman of the Council’s complaints procedure.
- For the above reasons, I have discontinued my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman