Scrutiny questions

Suggested questions to help councillors scrutinise their local services


We believe that complaints raised by the public can be an important source of information to help councillors identify issues that are affecting local people. Complaints can therefore play a key part in supporting the scrutiny of public services.

Below are range of questions that councillors could ask their local authorities on different topics. The questions are from our Focus Reports - visit the Focus Reports page for the reports in full.

We recommend a number of key questions that councillors can consider asking.

How does your council:

  • have resources and systems in place to meet statutory timescales for EHC assessments and annual reviews?

  • have strong partnerships at a senior level in health, education and social care to jointly commission services for EHC assessments and provision, and to address problems and complaints when they arise?

  • have processes in place to consider joint funding between services and resolve funding disagreements between health, care and education?

  • provide clear guidance to professionals who provide evidence for EHC assessments as to the level of detail and specificity required in their reports to enable SEND officers to draft thorough and legally compliant EHC plans?

  • embed complaint systems into any new delivery arrangements and provide clear advice and signposting to families who need to make a complaint?

  • obtain the consent of young people with capacity, when a complaint is raised on their behalf – or empower them to speak up in their own right?

  • provide all relevant officers with training on the law for children and young people with SEND?

  • have systems in place to check that provision in an EHC plan has been secured and is being provided to the child or young person?

  • ensure any changes to policies or eligibility criteria are checked by legal advisers to ensure the new service standard is lawful? We advise councils to keep to the wording in law and guidance as much as possible to avoid misunderstanding of the legal tests to be applied.

  • ensure Panel decisions are transparent and properly take into account the needs and evidence presented, with clear reasoning recorded? Parents and young people should be able to understand how a decision has been reached.

  • learn lessons from complaints received, including identifying any systemic issues which may affect others?

From the focus report:Not going to plan? Education, Health and Care plans two years on.

We have identified some questions and approaches elected members – and in particular leaders and scrutiny committees – can pose to challenge whether change work will have adverse impacts and unforeseen negative consequences.

  • How is the council planning for the impact on service users of change programmes?

  • How is the council ensuring that changes to eligibility criteria are lawful, based on need, and properly communicated?

  • How is the council properly managing any organisations acting on its behalf and embedding clear lines of accountability for dealing with complaints and concerns?

  • How is the council ensuring service redesigns avoid a loss of corporate memory and retain continuity for vulnerable service users?

  • How is the council using its own complaint information to anticipate problem areas for service users or training needs of its own staff?

  • How is the council demonstrating it learns from Ombudsman investigations?

Scrutiny Committees could:

  • review complaints information in the wake of councils reviewing and changing eligibility polices. Assess whether the revised policies, and their application, are making permanent improvements

  • review the situation after six or twelve months to see whether any change programmes are achieving the desired outcomes without adverse impacts to service users

Our experience has highlighted several key questions elected members could ask officers when scrutinising children’s services around special guardianship issues:

  • How does the council calculate special guardianship allowances? Is this in accordance with statutory guidance?

  • Are decisions about support to special guardians being made based on the child’s needs as opposed to blanket financial constraints?

  • What advice do prospective special guardians get before having to make key decisions about what to do?

  • How does the council manage social work caseloads to minimise the negative impact of frequent changes in social work support for special guardians and children?

  • What complaints have been made to the council about special guardianship? What are the outcomes and how has the council used them to improve its services?

  • How has the council learnt from best practice from other areas in the support it gives to potential and actual special guardians?

From the Focus Report Firm foundations: complaints about council support and advice for special guardians

  • How many families have been in bed and breakfast accommodation for more than six weeks?

  • How many 16 and 17 year olds have been placed in bed and breakfast accommodation? 

  • Does the local authority routinely place homeless people outside its area?

  • Does it have a published policy to explain in what circumstances it will do so? 

  • Does the local authority have a homelessness strategy and how is its implementation being assessed by senior officers? 

  • How does the local authority intend to meet its duties under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017?

  • What complaints have been raised about homelessness services, what were the outcomes and how has the council improved its services as a result?

From the Focus Report Still no place like home. Councils' use of unsuitable bed and breakfast accommodation for families

How does your council:

  • Have the necessary resources in place to meet the statutory timescales involved in completing EHC assessments?

  • Consider (with the family) at the earliest opportunity the evidence that will be required to complete the assessment and/or transfer process?

  • Consider it is on target to transfer all existing Statements of SEN to EHC plans by April 2018. If not, what steps does it plan to take?

  • Properly involve children, young people and their families in decision making?

  • Understand the extent of its duty to gather evidence and have adequate procedures in place to ensure a child’s social care and educational needs are properly assessed? Your council may also wish to consider guidance for Disabled Children for social care professionals: ‘Identifying the social care needs of disabled children and young people and those with SEN as part of Education, Health and Care needs Assessments’ (May 2016), and ‘The role of social care in implementing the Children and Families Act 2014’ which provide further guidance in this area.

  • Learn from the outcomes of complaints to improve services, and share this with the public?

  • Use our reports and decisions to develop its own policy and practice?

From the Focus Report Education, Health and Care Plans: our first 100 investigations

How does your council:

  • Make sure its refuse contractors are carrying out an effective service?

  • Deal with complaints about its contractors?

  • Make sure changes to the refuse and recycling service are introduced as smoothly as possible – and teething problems resolved as soon as possible?

  • Ensure the refuse service is properly set up to provide an effective and reliable service?

  • Listen to comments and concerns from residents about the service?

  • Carry out effective monitoring?

  • Learn from the outcomes of complaints to improve services, and share this with the public?

  • Use the Ombudsman’s reports and decisions to develop its own policy and practice

From the Focus Report Lifting the lid on bin complaints: learning to improve waste and recycling services

How does your authority:

  • follow the Mental Capacity Act Code of Practice when working with people who may lack capacity to make decisions?

  • ensure that ‘best interests’ assessments involve the family members or other people affected?

  • deal with and prioritise Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS) applications to ensure there are no people who may informally be having their freedom restricted? 

  • monitor the use of ‘locked door’ settings and ensure DoLS applications are in place for all cases?

  • learn from the outcomes of complaints to improve services, and share this with the public? > use the Ombudsman’s reports and decisions to develop its own policy and practice?

From the Focus Report The Right to Decide: Towards a greater understanding of mental capacity and deprivation of liberty

Does your council:

  • Have a policy for transport that complies with the 2014 guidance and an annual policy statement setting out arrangements for young people of sixth form age?

  • Publish information on its website that enables parents to easily understand which is their catchment school and whether this is considered the nearest available school for transport purposes? 

  • Ensure its appeal panels are aware of the circumstances when they should consider (and record) the exercise of discretion in reaching its decision?

  • Have policies for making travel arrangements for non eligible children and young people in accordance with the SEN Code of Practice? 

  • Take due account of a child’s mobility and health and safety problems associated with any SEN or disability when considering if they may be eligible for free transport?

  • Ensure the decision letters it issues following applications for transport or subsequent appeals are sufficiently reasoned and detailed to enable parents to properly understand all factors considered in reaching the decision made?

From the Focus Report All on board? Navigating school transport issues

How does your authority:

  • fully advise motorists of their appeal rights at all stages of the parking and traffic enforcement process; particularly when issuing PCNs at the scene? 

  • always make it clear motorists can appeal to an independent adjudicator even if their representations are rejected by the authority? 

  • provide suitably trained staff, with the appropriate authority, to properly consider ‘informal challenges’, and explain the reasons for decisions when responding to these? 

  • ensure motorists have fair access to discuss valid enquiries with the council about their penalty charges? 

  • ensure any enforcement agents (bailiffs) it employs follows best practice; and how does it retain oversight of complaints made to and about these agents? 

  • learn from the outcomes of complaints to improve services, and share this with the public? 

  • use the Ombudsman’s reports and decisions to develop its own policy and practice? 

  • promote transparency and greater understanding of the objectives of civil parking enforcement by publishing an annual parking report?

From the Focus Report Fairer Fines Ensuring good practice in the management of Parking and Traffic Penalties

Does your council, NHS trust, or care provider: 

  • follow the good practice advice in the report? 

  • ensure complaint handling staff are fully trained on the legal requirements of The Local Authority Social Services and National Health Service Complaints (England) Regulations 2009?

  • ensure that operational staff are fully trained on the statutory duty of CQC’s fundamental standards?

  • have robust links with partner agencies to ensure that complaints which span boundaries receive a seamless response? 

  • have effective mechanisms to ensure that learning points from complaints are acted upon? 

  • ensure that record keeping practices are fit for purpose? 

  • publish information about complaints it receives, which is easily accessible to the public, including the outcomes and how the organisations uses them to improve services?

From the Focus Report Working together to investigate health and social care complaints

Does your council:

  • follow our good practice?

  • consistently meet legislative deadlines for determining DFG applications and completing work?

  • have input into how the Better Care Fund is used in its area?

  • have the ability to help people where the cost of work needed exceeds the maximum grant available?

  • have strong links with its partners to ensure adaptations are delivered quickly and effectively?

From the focus report: Making a house a home: Local Authorities and disabled adaptations

We expect significant changes to a local housing authority’s allocation scheme to be considered by a committee of councillors before being implemented. Councillors play an important role in scrutinising proposed changes to an allocation scheme and have the opportunity to question relevant officers. The types of questions councillors may ask will vary depending on the changes proposed, but relevant considerations will normally include:

  • has the council consulted all relevant internal and external stakeholders?

  • has the council given proper consideration to government guidance on housing allocations?

  • are any departures from government recommendations properly considered and justified?

  • has the council considered its duties under the Equalities Act 2010?

  • what assessment has been made of the impact of the proposed changes on existing applicants?

  • are the proposed changes in line with the council’s wider objectives including policies relating to planning and affordable housing?

  • how will the impact of the changes be assessed and when will the scheme be reviewed?

From the Focus Report: Full House: Councils' role in allocating social housing - published January 2016

Does your council:

  • ensure there is sufficient variety of residential care providers to give people the best choice?

  • aim to develop a market that delivers a wide range of sustainable high-quality care and support services

  • available to your communities?

  • have internal policies and procedures that reflect the requirements of the Care Act 2014?

  • give people written information about charging for residential placements before they start looking for

  • placements and record when this has been done?

  • document offers of affordable placements?

  • document its response when the suitability of such offers is questioned?

  • put its funding decisions in writing?

  • assess people’s needs before making decisions which affect their finances?

  • have the right plans in place to provide advocacy, information and advice?

  • have systems in place to signpost people to financial advice where needed?

From the Focus Report: Counting the cost of care: the council's role in informing public choices about care - published September 2015

Does your council: 

  • follow the good practice advice in the report?

  • ensure complaint handling staff are fully trained on the children’s social care complaints system? 

  • ensure independent investigators or people, employed from outside the council, are aware of the need for proportionate stage 2 investigation? 

  • publish information about children’s service complaints it receives, which is easily accessible to the public, including the outcomes and how the council uses them to improve services? 

  • actively encourage scrutiny of complaints data in this area, and if so at what forum?

From the focus report: Are we getting the best from children’s social care complaints?

Encouraging local accountability – questions for scrutiny

  • Does the council conform with the good practice check list? 

  • What is the council’s target for building new homes and is it likely to achieve this?

  • Failure to provide new homes can have a significant effect on the local economy and housing market. What type of applications are currently decided by officers and should this be reviewed?

  • How does the “call in” procedure work and how often is it used?

  • How many of the council’s decisions are overturned by the Planning Inspector?

  • How many complaints does the council receive about decisions on planning applications, what are the outcomes and how has the council used them to improve its services?

From the focus report: Not in my back yard: Local people and the planning process

Local authorities in England have an important role to play in supporting parental choice of school and fair local admission arrangements. Elected members should ensure that the admission appeal process is independent, fair and robust in accordance with statutory guidance. They should reassure themselves:

  • the recruitment and appointment of independent admission appeal panel members is open and transparent; 

  • that panel members, in particular Chairs, are adequately trained and supported by professional clerks; 

  • that panel clerks are kept up to date on the law, guidance and best practice; 

  • that admission criteria are being effectively and fairly applied; 

  • the information and advice for parents about the appeal process is clear, readily available and signposted e.g the appeals timetable must be published in line with timescales set out in the Schools Admissions Code.

From the focus report: School admission appeals: are parents being heard?

Our experiences of complaints that are typically raised about local authority SEN services have highlighted a number of key questions that elected members could ask officers when scrutinising those services.

  • Does the council have an SEN strategy in place that is informed by known demographic information? 

  • What steps do the council take to ensure the child, young person and their parents are enabled to participate as fully as possible in decisions about them? 

  • Given the significant constraints on resources, how is the council ensuring that sufficient, quality resources and expertise are available now and in the future? 

  • How will the council deliver the requirements in the Children and Families Bill for enhanced partnership working, with the NHS in particular, to meet the shorter assessment timescales?

From the focus report: Special Educational Needs: preparing for the future

Our experiences of the types of complaints that are typically raised about family and friends carers have highlighted a number of key questions that elected members could ask officers locally:

  • Has the council published a clear policy on family and friends carers? 

  • Are the rates to carers being paid in accordance with statutory guidance? 

  • Are decisions about providing support being made based on the child’s needs as opposed to financial constraints? 

  • Are timely checks being made with family and friends carers to ensure the suitability of any new arrangement? 

  • What complaints have been made about family and friends carers, what are the outcomes and how has the council used them to improve its services?

From the focus report: Family values: Council services to family and friends who care for others’ children

Our experiences of the types of complaints that are typically raised about local authority use of bed and breakfast accommodation have highlighted a number of key questions that elected members could ask officers when scrutinising homelessness services: 

  • How many families have been in bed and breakfast accommodation for more than six weeks? 

  • How many 16 and 17 year olds have been placed in bed and breakfast accommodation?

  • Does the local authority have a homelessness strategy and how is its implementation being assessed by senior officers?

  • What complaints have been raised about homelessness services, what were the outcomes and how has the council improved its services as a result?

From the focus report: No place like home: Councils’ use of unsuitable bed & breakfast accommodation for homeless families and young people