London Borough of Hounslow (19 007 812)

Category : Environment and regulation > Trading standards

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 01 Jul 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X says the Council’s trading standards team failed to investigate a report he made about an estate agency. There was fault by the Council because it did not inform Mr X directly about its investigation. However, this failing did not cause Mr X significant injustice to warrant further investigation by, or a remedy from, the Ombudsman.

The complaint

  1. Mr X says the Council’s trading standards team failed to investigate a report he made about an estate agency. Mr X also says the Council failed to properly address his complaint about the failings of the trading standards team.
  2. Mr X wants the Council to investigate the estate agency and take enforcement action against it.

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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’. 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
  • 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, or
  • it is unlikely further investigation will lead to a different outcome, or
  • we cannot achieve the outcome someone wants, or
  • there is another body better placed to consider this complaint, or
  • it would be reasonable for the person to ask for a council review or appeal.

(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)

  1. 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 reviewed the complaint and background information provided by Mr X and the Council. I discussed matters with Mr X by telephone. I sent a draft decision statement to Mr X and the Council and considered the comments of both parties in reply.

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What I found

  1. Mr X contacted the Council in November 2018 about a rogue estate agency. This led the trading standards team registered a complaint. The Council says trading standards officers made enquiries within a week of receiving contact from Mr X. The Council says online checks were made on the trader’s website and of Companies House. It also checked redress schemes. The Council says officers sent a letter to the estate agency to remind it of its obligations as an estate agent. The Council says the agency joined a redress scheme on the following day. But officers did not contact Mr X.
  2. The Council says the investigating officer as well as a lead contractor left the service in January 2019. This left only two officers in the team. With only two officers in the team, the Council decided to focus only on core priorities as outlined in its service plan. These were doorstep crime/vulnerable; unsafe products/safety at ports project; illicit tobacco; and underage sales of knives, alcohol, tobacco, and fireworks. Complaints about estate agents were temporarily put on hold.
  3. Mr X contacted the Council again in March 2019. He said the estate agency was taking rent from two separate customers and the police advised him to contact trading standards. He received a response from the trading standards team that acknowledged the complaint and advised that an officer would be in touch if further information was required.
  4. Mr X made a formal complaint in May 2019. There was no response from the Council. Mr X contacted the Ombudsman in September 2019 and the matter was referred back to the Council for a response as it was premature.
  5. The Council upheld Mr X’s complaint. Mr X remained dissatisfied. He said the Council upheld his complaint but had not investigated his trading standards complaint. He told the Council he had obtained two county court judgements against the estate agency for misdirecting rents but he was aware of other residents who had expressed dissatisfaction with the agency. Mr X said the trading standards team had failed in its duty to investigate a deceitful business and had neglected protecting residents from illegal practices.
  6. Mr X chased up a response from the Council on two occasions because he received an out of office response from the stage one investigating officer.
  7. The Council sent a stage two complaint response in November 2019. That response iterated the earlier explanation offered at the first stage of the complaints procedure.
  8. Mr X says the Council failed to deal with his complaint as it was just a rubber stamping exercise. He says trading standards has still not investigated concerns about the estate agency’s deceitful practices. He says it has been over a year since he first contacted trading standards but no one from the department has contacted him.

Finding

  1. The Council already accepted fault in the actions of its trading standards team when it upheld Mr X’s complaint at stage one of its complaints procedure. So it falls to me to consider whether Mr X suffered an injustice that warrants further pursuit of this matter by, or a remedy from, the Ombudsman.
  2. In this case, I do not find Mr X suffered a significant injustice that now warrants further pursuit of this complaint by, or a remedy from, the Ombudsman.
  3. It is not for the Ombudsman to punish or supervise local authorities. So we will not investigate a complaint simply to ensure a local authority carries out its statutory duties. In terms of the actions of the estate agency that gave rise to his complaint, I note Mr X successfully took legal action against the agency.
  4. If the matter is conceived of in terms of the public interest, I note the Council restricted the activities of the trading standards team to core priorities within its service plan until it could recruit more officers. It has since recruited one officer and will review the activities trading standards officers will investigate in future. So, I do not consider there is a public interest reason to investigate this complaint further.
  5. I recognise the trading standards team did not contact Mr X directly to inform him of what the team had done, and crucially, that complaints about estate agents are unlikely to be investigated. Such contact would have been helpful in this and similar situations. I would urge the trading standards team to consider advising members of the public of the outcome of their contact at any early stage to forestall later complaints about a lack of response from the team.
  6. I note there was a delay before the Council accepted and then undertook a stage two complaint investigation in this case. But I do not find the delay to be significant enough to make a finding of fault by the Council. I am satisfied the Council properly considered Mr X’s complaint and do not find it amounted to a rubber stamping exercise.

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Final decision

  1. There was fault by the Council. However, this did not cause Mr X a degree of injustice to warrant further pursuit of the complaint by the Ombudsman.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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