The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr D complains the Council failed to correctly investigate his reports about rats and mishandled his complaint. The Ombudsman has not found evidence of fault by the Council in respect of the pest control issue. The Council has already acknowledged fault in the complaints handling. In view of this the Ombudsman has upheld the complaint and completed the investigation because there is no outstanding injustice.
- The complainant (whom I refer to as Mr D) says the Council failed to correctly investigate his reports of rat infestations near his home. He refers to events dating back to 2019. He also states the Council mishandled his complaint in 2021.
What I have investigated
- I am looking at events from February 2020 onwards. I explain below why I am not looking at earlier events.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a Council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered the information provided by Mr D. I asked the Council questions and examined its response.
- I shared my draft decision with both parties.
What I found
- Mr D lives in a block of flats neighbouring other blocks with a food outlet nearby. He complained to the Council in 2019 about rats outside his home. The Council took action with the property agents.
Events I have investigated
- On 22 February 2021 Mr D sent a complaint form to the Council. He stated that rats had reappeared outside his home. He had called the Council on 15 February and spoken to an Officer in Environmental Services who told him the case was for the Public Protection Team. The call was transferred, and the Public Protection Team then informed Mr D the case was not for them. He was still waiting for someone to resolve the problem. At the start of March, a Public Protection Officer (Officer) spoke to Mr D about the rat issue. The next day the Officer contacted the property agents for the flats and advised a complaint had been received. Three days later the Officer wrote to the agent acknowledging they had arranged to rebait the outside area. He advised the Council would contact the agents for the other blocks to arrange the same steps. The Officer then contacted the other agents. Because Mr D had also referred to a food outlet as a possible source of the rats the Officer asked the Food Team to investigate that site. In mid-March the Food Team advised the Officer it had visited and there was no sign of issues causing a rat infestation at the business.
- On 12 March the Council sent a holding response to Mr D’s complaint. It advised the Food Team had visited the food outlet and not found any issues. The relevant team would consider matters further. The Officer kept in touch with Mr D and spoke to him on 25 March. At the end of the month the Officer visited the site and saw bait boxes had been laid. The Officer emailed Mr D on 9 April, he had been in the area recently and noted bait boxes were still in place and working. He would check the process for baiting continued. The Officer did contact the agents as promised.
- On 13 April the Council replied to Mr D’s formal complaint. It reiterated the steps taken by the Officer regarding the rats. Mr D lodged a stage two complaint later that day. He said the Council had not responded on the handling of the initial complaint. The Council sent updates on the complaint to Mr D including 23 June. In July the Officer met Mr D who said the rat problem was lessening. On 22 September the Council sent its stage two response. It apologised for the delay and said this was due to staff changes. It acknowledged the stage one reply had failed to address Mr D’s complaint about his calls being incorrectly transferred. It again apologised. The Council said the complaint highlighted the “crossover” between the Public Protection and Environmental Services teams. It had asked Managers to remind staff about the correct service areas when handling calls.
What should have happened
- When the Council receives a report about a rat infestation outside residential properties it asses which of its teams should handle the case. Issues about rats caused by fly tipping, for example, are for the Environmental Services Team. A complaint about rats caused by a food outlet or poor property management are for the Public Protection Team. In the latter situation the case is then allocated to a Public Protection Team Officer (Officer) to investigate.
- The Officer will contact the complainant and the property agent. The Council seeks to resolve matters informally where possible. The Officer can request the agent treat the site for rats (by laying bait) and ensuring any sources of litter are cleared. If the agent is compliant the Officer will not take formal enforcement action.
- Rats at a food outlet are for the Food Team to investigate. A Food Team Officer will visit the site to see if there is any evidence of rodent activity and improper disposal of food waste. If there is no evidence of a problem, then no further action can be taken.
- When a resident calls the Council to report issues with rats the Council should ensure the call is transferred to the relevant team (as set out above).
- The Council’s complaints process requires a substantive response is sent to a stage one (initial) complaint within ten working days. Stage two (escalated) complaints are replied to within 24 working days. If the Council need to extend the response timescale it should notify the complainant.
Was there fault by the Council
- There was fault in the complaint handling by the Council. It has already set this out in its September 2021 reply to Mr D. It failed to ensure calls were correctly transferred and the initial complaint response did not address his key concern. I have not seen any evidence of additional fault by the Council.
- In respect of the investigation into the rat infestation I consider the Council has acted in line with its policies and procedures. The Officers in the case adhered to procedures when investigating Mr D’s reports, including visits to the food outlet and contact with the property agents. Because the agents complied with the Council’s requests there was no basis for formal enforcement action to be taken. I also see the key Officer in the case reasonably sought to update Mr D and visited the site to ensure compliance was ongoing. Mr D may disagree with decisions taken by the Council, for example to not take enforcement action, but in the absence of administrative fault the Ombudsman will not question the merits of such decisions.
Did the fault cause an injustice
- I do not see there is an outstanding injustice to Mr D. The Council has explained and apologised for the faults in his case. I have also seen confirmation that it informed Managers about the need to correctly process calls.
- I have upheld the complaint (because of the fault already acknowledged by the Council) and completed the investigation as there is no outstanding injustice.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I am looking at events from February 2020 which is 12 months prior to Mr D’s formal complaint. The Ombudsman will not usually consider matters that occurred more than 12 months before the complainant was aware of the problem.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman