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Durham County Council (19 010 812)

Category : Environment and regulation > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 24 Mar 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Council failed to complete the required course of pest control treatment. This meant Mr & Mrs B’s grandson stayed over and suffered bed bug bites. The Council will apologise, pay £100, review its information and service, and provide suitable reminders to its staff.

The complaint

  1. The complainants, who I will call Mr & Mrs B, say the Council failed to identify a bed bug infestation in the bed; therefore, no matter how many treatments the Council applied to the mattress and carpets it would not remove the problem. Mr & Mrs B did everything recommended and feel as the Council was the pest control expert it should have identified the cause of the problem rather than Mr B finding it. They therefore feel the service was inadequate.
  2. At the Council’s second visit, its officer told Mr & Mrs B there were no bed bugs and the Council did not need to complete further treatment. Because of this Mr & Mrs B’s grandson stayed over; he got bad bed bugs bites.
  3. The Council’s investigation of their complaint failed to do what was promised. The officer said they would compare treatments offered by other councils, but only did a comparison based on cost. Mr & Mrs B say other councils offer a single treatment which is more convenient for the user, rather than a minimum of three as offered by the Council. The officer also agreed to find out why the Council did not treat the bed itself but has never answered that point. The Council had a two week extension to complete the investigation, but Mr & Mrs B fail to see why this extension was needed as do not feel the Council conducted a thorough investigation. Mr & Mrs B feel the Council has given contradictory information
  4. Mr & Mrs B raised with the Council that it should give advice to GP’s, because had they had the right advice from their GP at the outset, they could have started the treatment much sooner. The Council has not replied to this point.
  5. Mr & Mrs B say had the Council identified the bed was the problem then the issue would have been sorted much sooner. They would not have paid for two lots of treatment and would not have had seven treatments with the associated inconvenience. If the Council had not said the room was free of bed bugs, their grandson would not have suffered severe bites. Although the Council said it was sorry, it did not explain what it was apologising for. Mr & Mrs B want the Council to acknowledge its service to them was inadequate, give a proper apology also apologising to their grandson, remove the bed, give written information to those requesting bed bug treatments, and give advice to GP’s to ensure they give proper advice to patients.

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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. 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 & Mrs B and the Council. I shared a draft of this statement and considered both parties’ comments.

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What I found

What happened

  1. The Council offers a pest control service. Its website says “The standard charge is £40.00 which covers visits and materials for most common pests. If we identify that certain pests require lengthier treatment, we'll advise you of any additional cost before we proceed.”
  2. Mr & Mrs B contacted the Council about an infestation which turned out to be bed bugs. The Council completed three treatments for the £40 fee within the period of a month.
  3. Seven months later Mr & Mrs B contacted the Council about a bed bug infestation. The Council treated this as a new instance and charged another £40. At the second visit the officer said there was no evidence of an infestation, so no further treatment was required.
  4. Mr & Mrs B relied on this advice; their grandson stayed and got bad bed bug bites. Mr & Mrs B took the bed apart and found it was riddled with bed bugs, they believe the Council should have identified this problem. Mr & Mrs B have stored the bed in their garden, as they want the Council to remove it.
  5. The Council came back and completed further treatments to resolve the bed bug issue; the further treatments were included in the second £40 fee. I asked the Council why it didn’t treat the bed and mattress, the Council says its products can be used on those items, therefore whilst its system only records the rooms it treated, it says it did treat the bed. Mr & Mrs B dispute this and say the officer only said he was treating the mattress and carpet in three bedrooms.
  6. Mr & Mrs B made a complaint to the Council the treatment was inadequate, and the recording of information was conflicting. This is because the officer recorded ‘No activity noted treatment complete.’ And also because they say they were told over the telephone the case record said something different.
  7. Mr & Mrs B did not feel the Council conducted a thorough investigation of their complaint; they say it did not address their concerns.

What should happen

  1. The Council’s information is conflicting. It says its standard approach is to complete at least three treatments, because it is recommended to be more effective as it overcomes the fact that unhatched eggs are not susceptible to the chemicals. But it also says the officer has discretion to decide what approach to use based on the evidence they find.
  2. The Council’s terms and conditions say “Where no number of visits is specified, the quoted price covers all visits required to clear the current infestation.” The Council says specifying such information is impossible to do upfront as the length of time will vary depending on the pest type and treatment used. It generally considers a new infestation has occurred where the customer doesn’t contact within the four-week period after the end of a treatment.

Was there fault causing injustice?

  1. In this case the Council accepts it was at fault not to complete the process of at least three treatments. It apologised to Mr & Mrs B, but did not specify what the apology was for. The Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies says for an apology to be meaningful it must both accept responsibility for the fault and acknowledge the impact this had on the complainant. An apology should also include an assurance that the same fault will not happen again and explain what steps have been taken to ensure this.
  2. Because the Council failed to complete the second treatment and said the bed bug infestation was dealt with, Mr & Mrs B allowed their grandson to stay. The child got badly bitten; this might not have happened if the Council had completed the full treatment. Mr & Mrs B certainly would not have let the child stay while treatment was ongoing. Although the Council apologised, I do not find the apology is specific as explained in paragraph 18.
  3. The Council has explained the logic for the treatment it provides, and while three treatments rather than one is more onerous for the person using the service, I do not find it is fault. There are good reasons for the Council’s decision to provide the service in this way. Other service providers are available should someone prefer a shorter treatment timescale or a different method of treatment.
  4. There is no evidence the Council told Mr & Mrs B they had to return within four weeks of the final treatment otherwise it would be treated as a new infestation and they would have to pay again. Mr & Mrs B say when the officer came to do the second round of treatment, he told them he thought it was the same infestation as bed bugs can lie dormant for some time. In the period between the professional treatments by the Council, Mr & Mrs B followed a vigorous hygiene regime. However, as there was a seven-month gap between the professional treatments it is reasonable for the Council to conclude it was a new infestation of bed bugs and to treat it as a new instance. There is no reason for the Ombudsman to question or criticise this professional judgement. The Council told Mr & Mrs B of the £40 charge, and they decided to incur it for a second round of treatment.
  5. Mr & Mrs B believe the Council should give written information to users of the pest control service. The treatments will vary depending on the pest to eliminate, and the spread of the infestation. Therefore, it would be difficult for the Council to have suitable written information to cover every scenario. However, it should ensure to give accurate and appropriate advice to users and potential users. The Council directs service users to download its terms and conditions; it can print and provide this at the initial visit if requested.
  6. The Council’s case records of officer visits are very brief, which leave the reader with uncertainty. For example, the note of the second visit which reads ‘no activity noted treatment complete’ could mean the officer completed a pesticide treatment at that visit or could mean the whole process is now complete. The Council disputes this as says when a treatment is completed, they record the product used, so it is evident that on this occasion no treatment was applied. I also note the Council says rooms were sprayed, which would include the bed, however the case notes record ‘all carpets sprayed’ which implies only the carpets were sprayed and not beds and mattresses. I rely on these records as evidence that the bed and mattress was not treated, and if it had been Mr & Mrs B’s grandson may not have been so badly affected. The Council disputes my views and says it is unrealistic to expect officers to list all items they treat in a room, it will advise officers to record they applied the product to all areas that can be safely treated and to record any specifics if necessary.
  7. I note Mr & Mrs B are concerned at the advice they received from their GP. This is not under the Council’s control and I would not expect the Council to give advice to GP’s regarding the treatment of bed bug bites.
  8. The Council responded to the complaint in line with its complaint procedure, including agreeing an extension to the original timescale. However, it did not fully address all the concerns raised. During a telephone conversation the Council suggested it look at comparisons from other councils’ services, Mr & Mrs B agreed this was a good idea. Mr & Mrs B expected some comparison about the provision of service, but the Council’s response was from the angle of cost. This appears to be a misunderstanding about what comparison was taking place.

Agreed action

  1. To acknowledge the impact of its fault, and prevent future problems, the Council will:
      1. Apologise to Mr & Mrs B, their grandson and his parents, for failing to complete the three-course pest control treatment which meant the grandson suffered bites and the family suffered distress.
      2. Pay Mr & Mrs B £100 to acknowledge the distress, time and trouble they have suffered.
      3. Remind relevant staff of the importance of keeping clear, accurate and contemporaneous records.
      4. Advise relevant staff that pest control officers have discretion to decide on the number of treatments required, they should record clear and cogent reasons for the decision in each case.
      5. The Council will specify to customers the maximum number of pest control visits they will receive for their payment. After which the customer will need to make further payment, or prove the treatment applied was ineffective.
  1. The Council should complete the above actions within one month of the final decision, and evidence its compliance to the Ombudsman.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation on the basis the agreed actions are sufficient to acknowledge the impact on Mr & Mrs B and prevent future problems.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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