Delays in investigating and implementing the recommendations following a complex Children Act 1989 complaint “excessive and unacceptable”, concludes Local Government Ombudsman
Mr B, who is care experienced*, complained to the Ombudsman about excessive delays to the handing of a complaint he made under the Children Act 1989 about “failures towards him as a looked after child”. Mr B raised the impact of delays on his wellbeing and mental health, which caused him significant harm and distress over a prolonged period” and requested an “appropriate financial remedy” to recognise this, along with “meaningful service improvements to ensure other people do not experience the same problems”.
*The Ombudsman’s decision does not include Mr B’s age, presumably to protect his privacy.
In early March 2020, Mr B submitted a stage 1 complaint under the Children Act 1989 about “the actions of children’s services” during the time he was looked after by the local authority. The local authority responded in mid-April, notifying Mr B of its decision not to uphold his complaint. The local authority explained that it would not comment on many of the specific points raised by Mr B due to ongoing court proceedings.
Following the stage 1 response, Mr B asked for his complaint to be investigated at stage 2 of the procedure. The local authority initially refused his request citing ongoing court proceedings but later agreed to investigate. Two months after making the initial request to escalate to stage 2, Mr B complained to the Ombudsman about the handling of his complaint, including delays.
Following the Ombudsman’s intervention, a statement of complaint was agreed by Mr B and the local authority investigating officer (IO) in late August 2020 but, subsequently, two consecutive IOs left their posts, meaning the investigation was delayed. A new (third) IO was appointed in late January 2021. In March 2021, the local authority responded to the stage 2 complaint, but more delays followed when the third IO left their role in June 2021. The local authority then “suspended the investigation to pursue mediation” but Mr B wished to complete the complaints process. The local authority agreed to fund an external IO.
In July 2021, Mr B approached the Ombudsman regarding slow progress and the local authority agreed to complete the stage 2 investigation within two months, offering Mr B £300 for the delay.
It then took until August 2022 and October 2022 for the respective IO and independent person* (IP) reports to be completed (which was said to be “due to delays by the council in clarifying legal issues”). Mr B’s complaint raised 94 individual points, of which 50 were fully and 12 partially upheld, 15 not upheld, and 11 were found inconclusive. The remaining 6 were unaddressed.
*Independent person: Secondary legislation requires local authorities to appoint an independent person (IP) as part of the stage 2 of the Children Act 1989 complaints procedure (regulation 17(2) of The Children Act 1989 Representations Procedure (England) Regulations 2006). The role of the IP is to: ensure openness, transparency and fairness of the investigation process; provide “an independent and objective view”, complementing the work of the investigating officer; participate fully in the investigation process, including by reviewing all relevant documentation and commenting on each of the points raised by the complainant. If the IP considers the investigation to be “unfair or incomplete”, it’s their role to share these concerns with the complainant (see paragraph 3.7.2 and pages 37-38 of statutory guidance: Getting the Best from Complaints (2006)).
The IO said in their report:
“The investigation has revealed [Mr B] has suffered considerable frustration and distress out of a sense of injustice which appears to have impacted upon him detrimentally and upon the way in which he has behaved at times. The actions of the [council] appear to have exacerbated the trauma of the experiences he has had and to have been emotionally harmful to him. In my view, Mr B has been unable to form safe relationships either at home or with social services […].
There is a general sense that professionals lacked focus exploring legal advice at appropriate times, in order to establish how threshold[s] could be met in the court arena to protect [Mr B] from further potential abuse. Circumstances such as promoting [Mr B] to be returned to an unsafe environment during court proceedings, providing him inadequate safety planning and protection and not providing him with the appropriate therapeutic placement setting, required to meet his needs, have significantly impacted upon the management of this case and the ability of social care – [the body] designed to protect [Mr B] – to do so.” (Paragraph 19; emphasis added)
The final stage 2 report made a total of 35 recommendations (see paragraph 20), including:
- A sincere apology for all the upheld complaints, an acknowledgement of the practices that failed Mr B and the impact this has had on his health and wellbeing.
- An open and transparent action plan with clear timescales and to ensure that Mr B is involved in the process of change where possible.
- Consideration of Mr B’s request for reimbursements and recompense for the risk, harm and emotional distress he experienced.
- A review of Mr B’s care package and psychological needs, followed by appropriate support from the private sector if necessary.
- Completion of outstanding investigations into Mr B’s complaints about individual care homes/staff.
- Professional conduct considerations in terms of current and former social work staff.
- A review of how the council is currently supporting vulnerable people and consideration of introducing trauma-informed practice in future cases.
- A review of its working relationship with the police to ensure young people are safeguarded.
- A review of social work practice and ensuring that there is greater clarity about the rationale behind decision-making.
- Improvements to complaint-handling, including no longer asking busy operational mangers at the council to carry out stage two investigations, reviewing the resourcing of the service and reviewing its procedures in line with our guidance.
The local authority finalised and shared its stage 2 adjudication letter** in late November 2022. While it accepted the findings relating to the individual complaint points, it failed to commit to implementing the recommendations. The local authority did agree to meet with Mr B.
**Adjudication letter: Adjudication, which takes place after the investigating officer (IO) has finalised their report, involves the local authority reviewing the IO report (including conclusions and recommendations), as well as any report prepared by the independent person (IP) and the complainants desired outcomes, and formulating its response to each point of complaint. The person acting as the adjudicating officer will normally be a senior manager within the local authority and the report prepared by them will include any actions to be taken by the local authority and the timescales for implementing them. The local authority will then write an adjudication letter to the complainant, setting out its response to the complaint and informing the complainant about their right to request a review of the complaint at stage 3 of the process (review panel – see regulation 17(8) of The Children Act 1989 Representations Procedure (England) Regulations 2006). For more information about the adjudication process, please refer to paragraphs 3.8.1-3.8.7 (the adjudication process’) and pages 38-39 (the role of the adjudicating officer) of statutory guidance: Getting the Best from Complaints (2006).
Following that meeting in January 2023, Mr B approached the Ombudsman again due to continued delays in agreeing and implementing an action plan in response to the stage 2 recommendations. In late March 2023, the local authority sent its action plan and an apology to Mr B, along with an offer of £3,000 financial payment. Mr B responded asking for a payment of £5,000 “and a full implementation of the action plan”, both of which the local authority agreed to.
The Ombudsman’s analysis and decision
While acknowledging the complexity of the complaint, the Ombudsman found the delay during the stage 2 investigation “excessive and unacceptable”, saying:
“It has taken over three years from the point Mr B made his first complaint to agreeing the action plan and an appropriate remedy. This was fault which has caused Mr B significant injustice. I understand the council experienced a number of difficulties in dealing with the complaint but to take this length of time has caused further distress, harm and frustration to Mr B and delayed access to therapeutic support which was recommended over three years ago. Mr B has continually chased up the council and involved our office on several occasions. We tried to secure an outcome by the autumn of 2021 but the council still took another 12 months to complete the investigation and a further five months to draw up an action plan and offer a remedy. This was far too long.” (Paragraphs 26-27; emphasis added)
The Ombudsman has asked that within one month the local authority:
- Pays Mr B the agreed £5000;
- Commits to providing three-monthly progress updates to Mr B in relation to the agreed action plan; and
- Commits to providing the Ombudsman with an update of agreed changes to improve the local complaints service.
You can read the full decision here: City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council (22 015 018)
To learn more about the Children Act 1989 complaints procedure, including who can make complaints and what can be complained about, the statutory timescales for investigating complaints, and the rights of children, young people and adults wishing to make a complaint, please refer to our guide on this topic.