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Equal access for all should be at the heart of services, Ombudsman says

Local authorities across England need to ensure disabled people are at the heart of how their services operate, so nobody in their community is placed at a disadvantage, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has said.

The Ombudsman’s latest report shares the learning from its investigations to help councils, and other local services, meet their legal duties to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to access their services, whatever their needs.

The Equality Act 2010 requires local services to make sure people with disabilities can access their service as easily as people without disabilities, and quite often this will involve councils making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to enable them to do so.

Reasonable adjustments are those measures people need to enable them to access services. This might involve, for example, providing information in large print for those with visual impairments, providing translation services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, or allowing people with dyslexia the opportunity to access services over the telephone rather than filling out online forms.

While the adjustments some people need might be obvious, for those with ‘hidden disabilities’ it may not be immediately apparent that they need extra help. So it is vital for local authorities to anticipate people’s needs, as the law requires, and proactively ask sensitive questions about any help people may need.

The majority of the Ombudsman’s investigations into Equality Act duties are about councils, and other local services, failing to deal properly with reasonable adjustments. The report highlights a number of cases where local services have got things wrong, and offers opportunities for others to learn.

Cases in the report include a council failing to make adjustments to the way social workers communicated with a woman with mental health difficulties, not allowing a man with dyslexia the opportunity to challenge a parking fine over the telephone, not providing an advocate for a woman when she told officers she could not attend a meeting because of problems with her medication, and a school that was only accepting written admission appeals for a time.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:

“We know dealing with public services can often be complex, so it is vital local service providers put the needs of people with disabilities at the heart of any decisions about how services are designed and delivered. It is not enough for them to leave this as an add-on or an afterthought – and enabling people with different needs to access their services shouldn’t be seen as an inconvenience.

“If people feel they have not had their reasonable adjustments met, they need to tell their local authority, and then come to us if they do not put things right. The stories in this report show that just one complaint to us has the power to make a huge difference. If we find a council has made a mistake, we can recommend changes that can impact everyone in their area and share that learning for other councils and providers to act on.

“I would urge local authorities to read my report and consider whether any of the services they provide are putting people with disabilities at a disadvantage.”

The Ombudsman’s report identifies a number of positive steps councils can make to improve services, including reviewing staff training needs around the Equality Act 2010, incorporating Equality Act duties in contracts when commissioning services from external suppliers, and retaining alternative contact methods for people with alternative needs when moving services online.

MLocal councillors and members of scrutiny committees are also provided with a list of questions they can ask their authorities to consider to analyse whether services in their wards meet their legal obligations.

Article date: 19 May 2022