Ombudsman warns of “widening cracks” in local government complaint handling

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) upheld a greater proportion of investigations in 2020/21 than ever before, its annual review of complaints has revealed.

The LGSCO said this continued an upward trend since it started publishing its uphold rate.

The Ombudsman noted that despite being closed to new complaints at the height of the first COVID-19 lockdown, and so registering fewer complaints than recent years, it still received 11,830 complaints and enquiries from members of the public.

Over the 12 months, the Ombudsman found fault in more than three quarters of complaints investigated about Education and Children’s Services (77%). There was an increase in the uphold rate of all categories of complaint, other than Environmental Services and Protection, which typically include complaints about refuse and recycling, noise, pollution and licensing.

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The investigations undertaken over the past year led to 3,104 recommendations to put things right for individuals.

There were 1,488 recommendations for councils to improve their services for others – such as revising procedures and training staff.

The LGSCO said this was a higher proportion of the total number of recommendations than previous years, and suggested that its investigations were increasingly finding systemic problems rather than one-off mistakes with local government services.

Michael King LGO 146x219The Ombudsman is still seeing high levels of compliance with its recommendations, with councils carrying out those recommendations in 99.5% of cases.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “We’ve been issuing our annual reviews for the past seven years now and, while every year has seen its challenges, this year seems to have been the most difficult for local authorities.

“While the way local authorities dealt with the pressures of COVID-19 is still being played out in our casework, early indications suggest it is only widening the cracks that were already there, and has deepened our concerns about the status of complaints services within councils. These concerns are not new and cannot be wholly attributed to the trials of the pandemic.”

King added that he was concerned about the general erosion to the visibility, capacity, and status of complaint functions within councils.

He said: “Listening to public complaints is an essential part of a well-run and properly accountable local authority, committed to public engagement, learning, and improvement. I know the best councils still understand this and put local democracy and good complaints handling at the forefront of their services.”

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