The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs X complained the notes of a meeting of the Norfolk Autism Partnership Board, of which the Council is a member, misrepresent her role at the meeting. The Ombudsman has discontinued his investigation. This is because we cannot achieve the outcome Mrs X wants, and another organisation is better placed to consider the complaint.
- Mrs X complained that the official notes, published on the Council’s website, of a meeting of the Norfolk Autism Partnership Board, of which the Council is a member, misrepresent her role at the meeting.
- Because of the note, Mrs X said a complaint was made about her and she was banned from Norfolk Autism Partnership Board meetings. This caused Mrs X distress.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Local Government Act 1974 sets out our powers but also imposes restrictions on what we can investigate.
- We investigate complaints about councils and certain other bodies. We can only accept complaints from members of the public or their authorised representatives. We cannot investigate complaints from public bodies. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 25 and 27(1)(a), as amended)
- 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:
- 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
- As part of the investigation I have considered the following:
- The complaint and the documents provided by the complainant.
- Documents provided by the Council and its comments in response to my enquiries.
- The Local Government Act 1974.
- The Terms of Reference for the Norfolk All Age Autism Partnership Board (NAPB) (Reviewed 11 September 2019).
What I found
- The government’s national autism strategy from 2010 encouraged local public bodies to set up autism partnership boards as a way of involving people with autism in developing local strategies.
- The NAPB is made up of a range of people, including education, health, and social care professionals, voluntary organisations, and the police. It reports to the Norfolk Health and Wellbeing Board.
- The NAPB’s role is to deliver the local autism strategy. It does this by raising awareness about autism, putting together action plans, and influencing its partners to improve services for people with autism.
- The Council is a partnership organisation of the NAPB and provides administrative support when needed.
- The Council employs an administrative officer who provides general roles for the NAPB, as needed. The administrative officer was not available to attend the meeting on 1 August 2019.
- The Council, and the local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), jointly fund an Autism Commissioner (AC). The AC’s role is to help ensure the right services are in place to support the needs and demands of autistic people in Norfolk.
- Mrs X is a governor of Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT). The NSFT is also a partnership organisation of the NAPB.
- Mrs X attended a meeting of the NAPB on 1 August 2019. Mrs X later became aware the official notes from the meeting, published on the Council’s website, were being used in a complaint about her. The complaint related to her role as governor of the NSFT. The NHS investigated and cleared Mrs X of any wrongdoing after she provided audio recordings she had taken at the meeting.
- Mrs X complained to the Council on 22 October 2019. She said there are many factual errors in the official notes published for the NAPG meeting on 1 August 2019. She said the notes were edited in a way that presented Council officers in a favourable manner and removed positive contributions she made. She said the notes present a false picture of the meeting.
- The Council responded to Mrs X’s complaint on 11 November 2019. It said:
“The notes are owned by the Chair and Co-Chair of the Autism Forum and signed off by the NAPB engagement working group. They enable a record of the information captured from the meeting.”
- The Council gave Mrs X an email address so she could contact the NAPB with her concerns.
- Mrs X contacted the Council again on 15 November 2019 as she was unhappy with its response.
- The Council responded on 13 December 2019. It said:
- “The NAPB is a partnership made up of statutory bodies, voluntary providers and people collaborating to implement the autism strategy in line with the autism act. The County Council provides administrative resource to support its functions.”
- “The NAPB meeting on 1 August was chaired by Mr Y, the Engagement Working Group Lead. Mr Y is not an officer of the County Council.”
- The Council repeated its earlier advice for Mrs X to contact the NAPB to consider her concerns.
- Mrs X remained unhappy and contacted the Council again on 27 December 2019.
- The Council sent its final complaint response to Mrs X on 15 January 2020. It repeated what it told Mrs X on 13 December 2019 and told her to contact the Ombudsman if she remained unhappy with its response.
- Mrs X brought her complaint to the Ombudsman on 22 January 2020. She said the Council would not consider her complaint. She wanted an accurate note of the meeting. She also wanted the Council to replace the AC and chair of the meeting.
Response to my enquiries
- The Council told me about a recent employment tribunal decision, published on the government’s court and tribunal webpage, which found the NAPB is an entirely separate body to the Council.
- The Council said Mrs X attended the meeting on 1 August 2019 in her role of governor of the NSFT, not as a member of the public. The injustice she claimed relates to her position as a governor. It said she also sought to complain on behalf of the autism community in Norfolk rather than as a member of the public.
- The Council confirmed the NAPB investigated Mrs X’s complaint. It found the note to be an accurate reflection of the meeting. It decided that, in future, its notes will be sent to all meeting attendees for comments prior to sign off.
- The Council suggested Mrs X did not complain as a member of the public but in her role as governor of the NSFT. If this is the case, paragraph 4 above would apply, and we would not be able to consider Mrs X’s complaint. Mrs X disputes the Council’s suggestion. She told me she did not attend the NAPB meeting in her capacity of governor of the NSFT, but as an autistic person and member of the public. For the reasons below, I have not come to a decision on this point.
- When considering whether the NAPB comes under the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction, I note that it is not an organisation listed at Section 25 of the Local Government Act 1974. While Health and Wellbeing Boards are expressly stated to be committees of local authorities, Autism Partnership Boards (APBs) are not.
- I have also considered whether the Council is in jurisdiction by virtue of the NAPB carrying out a function of the Council. Councils are expected, under the Autism Act 2009, to set up APBs or similar partnerships. However, it is considered the Council’s function is limited to setting up an APB.
- Finally, I have considered whether the NAPB is carrying out a function of the Health and Wellbeing Board, which is in the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. However, based on the functions described by the Health and Social Care Act 2012, it does not appear the NAPB is carrying out any functions of the Health and Wellbeing Board.
- Complaints about the NAPB as a whole are therefore not in the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
- The actions of the AC may be in jurisdiction. The Terms of Reference for the NAPB state it is the role of the AC to prepare draft minutes at meetings. Since this role is specifically allocated to a Council officer, it supports the view that the officer is acting to discharge Council functions. However, for the reasons below, I have not come to a decision on this point.
- Even if the Ombudsman found the Council at fault through the actions of the AC, the Ombudsman does not have the power to make recommendations to the NAPB and he cannot compel the NAPB to amend the meeting notes. The Ombudsman therefore cannot achieve the outcome Mrs X wants.
- Mrs X came to the Ombudsman because the Council would not consider her complaint. The NAPB has now considered Mrs X’s complaint and, for the reasons above, is better placed to do so than the Ombudsman.
- I have discontinued my investigation. This is because I cannot achieve the outcome Mrs X wants, and another organisation is better placed to consider the complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman