Concern over suspension of rights safeguard

Last week, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGO) announced it was “suspending complaints enquiries of councils and care providers’ in light of the Coronavirus outbreak”. The Ombudsman, Michael King, stated that “we still expect local authorities and care providers to respond appropriately to any complaints they receive during this time”. However, he has admitted that “this may look different to their normal arrangements”.

Kamena Dorling, Article 39’s Head of Policy and Advocacy, said:

“While we acknowledge the real need to alleviate pressure on local authorities at this unprecedented time, Article 39 is extremely concerned about the potential impact of this decision on children and young people in the care system.

We have already been alerted to examples of the complaints procedure at a local level being weakened in recent weeks. This makes the Ombudsman safeguard all the more important.

We would have preferred a triage-based system where at least the most serious cases would be considered for investigation. We will be monitoring the impact of this decision, as well as how statutory complaints procedures are working at a local level, though our advocates network. This is an incredibly stressful time for everyone, which makes it all the more important that vulnerable children and young people can still fall back on established mechanisms to protect their rights.”  

Last year, the LGO made decisions in 1,732 complaints about education and children’s services and 66% of these were upheld.

The LGO has now suspended all casework activity that demands information from, or action by, local authorities and care providers to ‘protect’ their capacity to deliver vital frontline services during the panedmic. Councils and care providers will not be asked to answer enquiries on new or existing cases and cases still in progress will be frozen for the time being. The LGO has stated on social media that it will “be closely observing what happens and if we sense significant levels of injustice arising, we can and will re-engage at any point” but it is unclear how this will be possible without a functioning complaints process.

When services do resume, the LGO has made clear that delays caused by these changes will be taken into account when considering whether or not complaints have been brought within the legal timeframe. Those who have already registered a complaint will be contacted about their case in due course.

LGO complaints can make a huge difference both to individuals and wider policy. This was the case, for example, with the LGO’s finding that Cornwall Council had repeatedly provided inappropriate accommodation for a young person and failed to properly assess the boy’s needs. The boy spent five weeks in a tent, four weeks in a static caravan and several nights sleeping rough after approaching the council for help. The LGO’s recommendations included a review of the council’s procedures for accommodating young people and pushed the council to confirm that it would invest significant funds in accommodation suitable for housing young people.

The Children Act 1989 complaints procedure can also prevent further damage being done by, for instance, ensuring that a decision to move a child in care is frozen whilst the complaint is being investigated.

Recommendations to improve services typically include a review of policies, change to practices, training staff, and awareness raising of issues within the authority and to the public. The LGO can also ask authorities to put things right for people affected by issues found within an investigation but did not complain themselves.

Article 39 is monitoring children and young people’s access to justice via statutory complaints procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Please contact our Head of Policy and Advocacy, Kamena Dorling, with any information: kamena.dorling@article39.org.uk.

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