The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The investigation of this complaint will be discontinued as it is unlikely the Ombudsman could decide what was said in private conversations between two individuals where they do not agree. It is unlikely there will be enough evidence to prove, either way, allegations made about the conduct of a Council Officer.
- The complainant, who I shall call Mr X, complains that a Council officer has been making inappropriate comments about his business, which is ruining its reputation.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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:
- it is unlikely we would find fault, or
- we cannot achieve the outcome someone wants, or
- there is another body better placed to consider this complaint.
(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I read the papers put in by Mr X and discussed the complaint with him.
- Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
- Mr X complains about the conduct of a Council Officer. Mr X complains about what the officer has said to potential clients of his business.
- The Council has considered Mr X’s complaint through its complaints procedure. The Council said ‘officers are in a difficult position in that they have a duty to advise and educate businesses on what a good contract looks like and if the contract, housekeeping or structural conditions are such that they do not meet the standard; despite a contract being in place, then they do have to advise that business’.
- Mr X explained to me on the telephone that most of his customers were not willing to support his complaint as they worried it could cause them problems in the future. Mr X said there is one customer who may be willing to make a written statement. Mr X said he is also considering a solicitor writing a letter complaining of defamation.
- I have considered all the information Mr X has sent and I understand his concerns. However, our investigations rely on evidence to find out what has happened and there is no way we can decide what was said in private conversations where accounts of the conversation differs. i.e. even with a customers' statement, if this differs from the Council officer’s version of events there is no way for me to decide which version of a conversation was correct if I was not there. I think it may be simply not possible to reach a sound, evidenced decision on the points Mr X’s is concerned about. So, I propose to discontinue the investigation as I do not consider there is likely to be any worthwhile outcome we can achieve.
- Mr X said he was concerned the Council passed on the fact he was complaining to the Council officer. Mr X said that he feels if the Council obtained statements from the business owners first, before telling the officer then the outcome may `have been different. As it was, once the customers were aware the officer knew they had complained they didn’t want to carry on.
- I have looked at Mr X’s complaint to the Council. After explaining his complaint, Mr X says ‘could you advise me where I can take my concerns? I don’t want to talk with the department at this point as this may only make matters worse’. While I understand Mr X’s concerns, his letter does not ask the Council not to tell the officer involved, it says that Mr X does not want to talk to him. So, I cannot see any evidence of fault on this point to warrant further investigation.
- Mr X complains about the Council’s interpretation of the guidelines on qualifications needed for a job, as they are guidelines not law. While I note his concerns, the Ombudsman cannot decide whether Mr X’s qualifications are suitable and could not say that the Council was at fault for following available guidance.
- I have stopped investigating this complaint and do not uphold this complaint. I have discontinued on the basis that there is unlikely to be enough evidence to provide a worthwhile outcome from investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman