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Council failed to investigate cancer cluster concerns, Ombudsman finds as it warns it will investigate actions of Directors of Public Health

Barking and Dagenham Council is to review reports of a possible cancer cluster within the borough after an investigation by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman found it previously failed to act on a woman's concerns.

The council has also agreed to make several improvements to its services recommended by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) in its investigation of the case.

The woman first reported the cluster to the London borough in April 2018 and chased the council about her concerns over many months. However, instead of going through the proper procedures, the council failed to respond to the woman, lost her reports in its systems, and did not take them through the appropriate public health channels, the LGSCO said.

When the council considered the woman's complaint about its inaction, it referred the woman to the Environment Agency instead of the Ombudsman.

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Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said he highlighted the case in order to raise councils' awareness that the watchdog "can – and will – investigate the actions of Directors of Public Health where we receive complaints".

Mr King added: "The Health and Social Care Act 2012 gives councils the responsibility to improve their population's overall health, and this includes acting on reports of non-infectious disease clusters.

"We are concerned about the lack of understanding within the council of its public health duties in relation to this issue. So I hope the changes the council has agreed to make, including developing and circulating a new procedure, will help ensure awareness is raised within the authority."

In response to the investigation, Barking and Dagenham has agreed to apologise to the woman and pay her £750 to recognise the distress, uncertainty and confusion its faults have caused her. It will also investigate her concerns about the cancer cluster, although it says such a situation would be "incredibly rare".

Additionally, the council has agreed to develop a procedure detailing its expectations for teams dealing with reports of non-infectious disease clusters, and will consider how it can use the Ombudsman's report to raise internal awareness of its public health duties.

A spokesperson for Barking and Dagenham Council said: "We have received the findings of the Ombudsman's report regarding a resident's complaints about potential cancer clusters in their neighbourhood.

"We have taken on board the concerns raised in the report and are already acting on its recommendations."

They added: "As a council we accept we did not handle the concerns raised in a co-ordinated way which falls short of the standards of customer service we set ourselves and have since corrected this oversight – for this we apologise to the complainant. Although it is important to stress that the concerns about potential cancer clusters have not been proven, and such clusters are incredibly rare.

"We would like to reassure our residents that concerns of this nature are taken very seriously and we will act to protect the health and safety of our residents in such cases."

Adam Carey

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