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Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames (20 014 433)

Category : Environment and regulation > Refuse and recycling

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 01 Dec 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Council regularly fails to provide Ms B’s assisted bin collection. This has been continuing for years, and despite the Council overseeing the service, the problems persist. Ms B is disabled and has a son with a life-threatening medical condition. When the Council fails to return bins to the collection point and leaves them behind her car, she worries about getting out in an emergency. The Council will oversee Ms B’s collections for a further three months and provide her with a direct contact to report problems. The Council will acknowledge Ms B’s distress, time, trouble and financial impact by a total payment of £540.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I will call Ms B, says the Council consistently fails to either collect her bins or return the bins to the assigned spot. The bins are often left blocking Ms B’s car, which causes her worry about whether she could get out in an emergency as her son has severe anaphylaxis. Ms B is disabled, cannot move the bin herself, and has an assisted collection. The issues have been continuing for around four years, and although the Council has acted over that time to improve service, it never lasts, and the problems recur. Ms B has spent time and trouble frequently contacting the Council, and complaining, to try and resolve the problems. She has had problems with sending attached evidence and has had to pay someone to help with this. The stress dealing with these issues was high in 2019 when she was also dealing with her son having an operation and her mother being ill and later dying.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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). Although the issues in this case date back to 2017 I have exercised discretion to consider the whole period. The issues are ongoing, and actions the Council has taken over the years has not prevented the problems recurring.
  2. We investigate complaints about councils and certain other bodies. Where an individual, organisation or private company is providing services on behalf of a council, we can investigate complaints about the actions of these providers. (Local Government Act 1974, section 25(7), as amended). In this case Veolia provides waste collection services on behalf of the Council.
  3. 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)
  4. 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 from Ms B, including video evidence and telephone discussions.
    • Information from the Council in response to my enquiries.
    • The Council’s ‘Recycling & Waste policy’ and contract details for assisted collections.
  2. Ms B and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

  1. The Council provide Ms B with an assisted collection of her wheeled bins. This means the workers collect and return Ms B’s wheeled bins from and to their collection point on her drive, because Ms B cannot do this herself.
  2. Ms B has had problems for many years with bins not collected or collected but not returned to the collection point. The Council uses a contractor called Veolia to complete waste collections on its behalf. Veolia’s staff have regularly left the bins on the pavement behind Ms B’s car. Ms B then must contact the Council to ask someone to return and move the bins back to the collection point; it sometimes takes days for an operative to return. Meanwhile, Ms B worries how she will get her car out in an emergency with the bins blocking the way. Ms B’s son has medical conditions which could be life threatening.
  3. It is difficult for Ms B to report a missed collection, because the Council website will either state it has been collected or the crew is on its way and not let her report it as missed. So, Ms B must e-mail the Council to raise her concerns.
  4. The Council checks Veolia’s performance and it set up a missed collections tracker in 2020. Where Veolia repeatedly misses collections a supervisor from Veolia will oversee collections for an agreed period. Despite regular periods of a supervisor overseeing the problems at Ms B’s address, the problems have continued. The Council has an option to ‘fine’ Veolia for not meeting the service standards in the contract and says it has done so.
  5. The Council explains this year there has been a period where the supervisors were off sick, there was a large turnaround of staff, including the use of agency staff, so knowledge was lost. Ms B’s collections were unmonitored for a time, and this resulted in not returning Ms B’s bins to the collection point. The Council said a manager from Veolia will monitor for a further three months. Despite this Ms B is still having problems.
  6. Veolia’s crews use a tablet on board the refuse collection vehicles. Assisted collections are marked red for clarity. Veolia induct staff on how to use these tablets, and therefore despite any turnaround of staff and lack of supervision, it should be clear to the operatives what is meant by an assisted collection, and which properties require this service. The Council says Veolia will issue written training to all staff. Veolia says it has given verbal warnings to relevant staff for its failures with Ms B’s assisted collections.
  7. The Council says it has provided written training to Veolia staff; it needs to consider whether this is the most appropriate way to send its message. Staff might not have English as their first language, or might have difficulties with reading, such as dyslexia, so might need translation or a visual demonstration.
  8. I asked the Council what it could do to finally resolve the issues. The Council has met Ms B on site with a Veolia employee, discussed the issues and apologised for the failures in its service. The Council has agreed to monitor for three months and then do spot checks. The crew will take photographs after each collection to show they have returned the bins to the collection point; this will continue until further notice. The Council will provide Ms B with relevant e-mail addresses to contact with any issues.
  9. Ms B relies on the service because of disability, yet for years the Council has let her down. The Council failed to engage with her and understand the human impact of it failing in its assisted bin collection service. The Council accepted the excuses provided by Veolia, some of which it has now established are not true or exaggerated. Veolia staff have been rude to Ms B when she has queried why they have not taken or returned her bins. The Council has apologised for this and confirmed only Veolia management should engage with residents.
  10. Having now met Ms B on site and discussed the issues, the Council has established Ms B’s car does not block the bins as described by Veolia as a reason for not always collecting or returning them. The Council should take the learning from the complaint, to fully engage with residents at an earlier time in proceedings, to fully assess what the problems are and seek to find resolutions. A lot of time was wasted communicating with Veolia and accepting what it said in response, but not resolving the issues at hand or engaging with Ms B to understand the impact on her.
  11. Ms B finds the situation stressful with the worry about getting out of her property in an emergency. Ms B has the time and trouble of constant communications with the Council to ask someone to return to empty or return her bins. This has been continuing for many years, so the impact is compounded by the length of time matters are ongoing. Ms B’s health is deteriorating, and she worries how she will cope in future if these issues are not finally resolved. Ms B is disappointed that despite the Council overseeing the problem it recurs. Ms B has had a financial impact as she paid someone to help her with the technology side of evidencing her issues, and the Council wrongly removed and crushed a bin she had paid for without discussing it with her. Ms B says she accepts there will be occasions where the service is missed but believes it would help if she had a direct contact at the Council and Veolia to then report and resolve it. Ms B found the recent meeting with the Council useful and hopes the relationship and service will now improve.

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Agreed action

  1. When a council commissions another organisation to provide services on its behalf it remains responsible for those services and for the actions of the organisation providing them. So, although I found fault with the service of Veolia, I have made recommendations to the Council.
  2. To acknowledge the impact on Ms B and to prevent future problems the Council will:
      1. Apologise to Ms B for the repeated failures with her assisted collections. Pay £300 to acknowledge her distress, and £240 to acknowledge her time, trouble, and financial impact.
      2. Provide Ms B with a direct contact as a quicker way for her to report problems, at least for an agreed period.
      3. Consider whether Veolia needs to provide training to its staff by different methods, such as a visual demonstration, verbal explanation, written instructions in other languages.
      4. Monitor the assisted bin collection service for three months from the Ombudsman’s final decision, identify the reasons for any problems, and consider how the issues can be resolved. Continue to complete spot checks on this route thereafter.
  3. The Council should complete actions a-c within one month of the Ombudsman’s final decision, and action d within three months. The Council should evidence its compliance to the Ombudsman.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation on the basis the agreed action is sufficient to acknowledge the impact on Ms B and to prevent future problems.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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