London Travelwatch (18 008 373)

Category : Transport and highways > Public transport

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 11 Mar 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr B considers that London TravelWatch was wrong to dismiss his complaint about Transport for London’s response to his complaint about him being refused access to a riverboat service. The Ombudsman considers that Transport for London did not provide an adequate response to Mr B, and that London TravelWatch was therefore at fault in not asking it to provide an appropriate response. London TravelWatch has agreed to review its approach to complaint-handling in conjunction with Transport for London, which has also agreed to provide an adequate response to Mr B’s complaint. This represents a suitable remedy for the injustice caused to Mr B.

The complaint

  1. Mr B complains that London TravelWatch was at fault in deciding that TfL had responded appropriately to his complaint about being refused access to a riverboat service on the River Thames.

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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”. 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)
  2. If we are satisfied with the actions or proposed actions of bodies within our jurisdiction, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
  3. We cannot investigate a complaint if it is about a personnel issue. (Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5/5a, paragraph 4, as amended)
  4. However, complaints about the behaviour of staff are within the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. But when deciding whether to investigate such matters, we must consider whether the injustice caused is sufficient to warrant the public expense of an investigation. Furthermore, it may not prove possible to investigate such a complaint effectively because of lack of evidence to substantiate what happened.

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have considered Mr B’s written complaint and supporting papers and discussed his complaint with him. I have also sent Mr B and London TravelWatch a draft decision and invited their comments.

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What I found

  1. TfL is the integrated transport authority for London. It runs the day-to-day operation of London’s public transport network and manage London's main roads.
  2. A division of TfL manages commuter and tourist services boat operating between a series of piers on the River Thames. TFL operates some of the piers, though the majority are operated by third parties.
  3. TfL has its own complaints process which deals with complaints about its service. If a complainant remains dissatisfied after TfL has completed its complaints process, then they may appeal to London TravelWatch.

London TravelWatch

  1. London TravelWatch is a statutory British consumer organisation that campaigns for improvements to transport in London. It is the transport watchdog for services provided by TfL and for National Rail companies in the London area and parts of the South East.
  2. London TravelWatch also deals with individual complaints against the transport operators. However, it only considers complaints after the operator has already dealt with them, if the complainant remains dissatisfied.
  3. London TravelWatch will consider if the transport company:
    • handled the complaint in a timely manner;
    • answered all the questions raised in the complaint;
    • gave factual and accurate information;
    • was clear and easy to understand;
    • explained the steps taken or to be taken; and
    • offered a remedy where appropriate.
  4. If London TravelWatch does not think that the transport company has handled a complaint appropriately, it asks them to look at some or all the issues raised in the original complaint or at the representations that London TravelWatch has made on the complainant’s behalf.

What happened

  1. In March 2018, Mr B and two guests tried to use a voucher scheme for a journey on the River Thames. Mr B says he was told that, as there was no internet connection, he would be unable to use the vouchers. He asked to speak with a manager about this and was advised that he might be able to find an appropriate staff member at the bottom of the boarding ramp.
  2. Mr B says he spoke with a riverboat staff member and, as part of a normal exchange, described the ticketing system in critical terms using an abbreviated form of a swearword. However, he denies swearing and says the staff member showed no signs of distress at the encounter.
  3. Mr B says that a pier supervisor then approached him and accused him of swearing and abusing the staff member, and said he had the power to prevent anyone from boarding if he considered that to be appropriate. Mr B denied having sworn and, after further discussion, returned to the ticket office and bought tickets for himself and his guests.
  4. Mr B says that, after returning to the bottom of the boarding ramp and presenting his ticket to the staff member the pier supervisor then accused him of “assaulting” the staff member and told him that he could not board the boat. He says that the riverboat staff member and a manager, who was present, appeared bemused and embarrassed by the pier supervisor’s actions. He says the manager escorted him back to the ticket office where his tickets were refunded.
  5. Mr B then complained to TfL about the supervisor’s actions which he felt were unjustified.
  6. TfL responded to his complaint and explained that the staff member had been interviewed to establish their account of events, and the Area Manager had taken appropriate action to ensure that lessons had been learnt and that there was no repeat of such behaviour. A decision was then made as to whether disciplinary action was appropriate.
  7. Mr B responded by asking:
    • whether his complaint had been upheld;
    • whether any disciplinary action had been taken against the staff member;
    • what measures have been taken to ensure that such actions were not repeated; and
    • whether compensation might be appropriate.
  8. TfL responded by saying that it had investigated his complaint and taken appropriate action. It said that it could not disclose any details of the investigation due to confidentiality. It also said it had no provision to pay compensation in such circumstances. It advised Mr B that he could contact London TravelWatch if he remained dissatisfied.
  9. Mr B wrote to London TravelWatch, which responded by saying that, under employment law and the Data Protection Act, employers are not permitted to disclose information about an investigation into staff conduct. London TravelWatch explained however that it has been assured that the matter had been investigated and appropriate action taken, so TfL had done what was expected of it. It said that staff conduct complaints do not attract compensation so it could not ask TfL to pay compensation for which it was not liable.
  10. Mr B asked some further questions to which London TravelWatch responded. He then escalated his complaint through two further stages of London TravelWatch’s complaints procedure and to his MP. However, London TravelWatch maintained its position that TfL could not reveal information about the outcome of an individual staff member complaint.

My assessment

  1. The Ombudsman would not usually investigate complaints about individual incidents involving staff conduct, for the reasons set out in paragraph 5 above. However, we would expect bodies in our jurisdiction to provide an appropriate response to complaints from members of the public.
  2. In its complaint response, TfL said that it has investigated the complaint and taken what action it considered appropriate but that it could not say any more on data protection grounds. I do not consider that to be an adequate response to the complaint.
  3. I agree that TfL is bound by the Data Protection Act in respect of the publication of personnel data such as disciplinary action against an employee. Likewise, the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction to consider personnel matters.
  4. However, Mr B has complained that he was treated unfairly by a TfL staff member and wrongly refused access to the riverboat service. He has also asked whether the pier supervisor had the authority to refuse him access to the riverboat service.
  5. London TravelWatch has explained that, when investigating a complaint, it considers the factors set out in paragraph 12 above. In view of this, it considers that it is debatable whether London TravelWatch was at fault in this case. In support of this, it has explained that:
    • the casework staff answered the questions raised by Mr B;
    • Mr B was given information about how to take his complaint further at every stage; and
    • all correspondence was within London TravelWatch's advertised timescales.
  6. That said, London TravelWatch accepts that there are lessons that could be learnt from this complaint. In hindsight, it recognises that it could have confirmed to Mr B that the TfL Rivers staff member did have the authority to refuse him access to the riverboat services. It has also suggested that, in future, it will also ensure that responses to complaints about staff behaviour, where appropriate, contain information such as dates of any disciplinary action or reviews, as this is more likely to reassure passengers that action has taken place.
  7. I note London TravelWatch’s comments. But I do not consider that TfL has:
    • answered all the questions that Mr B has raised in the complaint;
    • given factual and accurate information which would enable Mr B to understand the outcome of his complaint;
    • explained the steps taken or to be taken to avoid a recurrence of such an issue; or
    • provided an adequate explanation of whether a remedy was appropriate for depriving him of a service.
  8. I consider that TfL was therefore at fault in the way it responded to Mr B’s complaint, and London TravelWatch was also at fault in deciding that TfL had provided an appropriate response to Mr B’s complaint.
  9. I have asked London TravelWatch to review its complaint-handling in conjunction with TfL and it has agreed to do so. I consider that TfL should have responded to Mr B’s complaint as set out in the bullet points in paragraph 30 above. It seems to me that these matters are quite separate from any disciplinary issues and are matters which a complainant might reasonably expect to form part of a complaint response. I therefore consider that London TravelWatch should have regard to the above when it reviews its complaint handling in conjunction with TfL.
  10. I note also that London TravelWatch has suggested that it will ensure that complaint responses contain information such as dates of any disciplinary action or reviews.
  11. I consider that complaint responses should contain details of measures such as training undertaken, and changes to guidance or procedures. But it would be inappropriate for complaint responses to contain dates of disciplinary action, as this would result in a breach of confidentiality in revealing that a staff member had been disciplined.

Agreed action

  1. I have written separately to TfL explaining that I do not consider that it has responded adequately to Mr B’s complaint and it has agreed to do so.
  2. London TravelWatch has agreed to the Ombudsman’s recommendations that it review its approach to complaint-handling in conjunction with TfL such that members of the public receive appropriate responses to their complaints and, within three months, to inform the Ombudsman of the steps it has taken to review its approach.

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Final decision

  1. I have closed my investigation because I consider the agreed action represents a suitable remedy for the injustice caused to Mr B.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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