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Ombudsman and council at loggerheads over taxi licensing applications investigation

A row has broken out between the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGO) and a North West council over a case involving a woman’s application for a hackney carriage licence.

The LGO has accused officers at Rossendale Borough Council of “misrepresenting” its first investigation report to councillors.

The local authority in turn has claimed that the Ombudsman’s report was based on “misunderstandings of the law”.

The LGO’s first report was published in June 2017 after an investigation into a complaint by the father of an applicant for a licence. His daughter had to wait 16 weeks for her licence to be processed.

The Ombudsman concluded that the length of time the council took to process the woman’s application did not amount to good administrative practice.

There was no suggestion the delay in issuing the woman’s licence was for any legitimate reason, it added.

Rossendale told the Ombudsman that the backlog was due to a significant increase in the number of new applicants, particularly from outside its area. It allocated more staff to its licensing unit and also introduced pre-requisite assessments and policies for those not intending to use their licence within the borough’s boundaries.

The Ombudsman recommended that, to remedy the situation, the council should pay the complainant’s daughter £350 in recognition of the uncertainty and time and trouble she had been put to.

The LGO said Rossendale should also:

  • identify and review any other complaints received about delays in processing taxi licence applications under its previous policy;
  • identify any other applicants in a similar position to this case who are able to show they suffered a significant injustice and consider how it should remedy this.

Officers subsequently presented the report to Rossendale’s Cabinet. However, the councillors decided – on the basis of what the LGO claims was “misleading information” – not to accept the Ombudsman’s finding of fault.

“The only way a council can do this is by judicial review in the court. However, the council has neither applied to judicially review the decision, nor to accept the Ombudsman’s findings. It cannot do this,” the LGO said.

The Ombudsman has now issued a further report on the council, asking it to reconsider its options.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “I am particularly disappointed with the way Rossendale Council has dealt with my earlier report, and the inaccurate advice it has given to members, both about the decision itself and the legal options open to members if they chose to dispute it.

“The council has justified the delay being due to the need for proper scrutiny and to ensure the safety of residents. We have never suggested public safety should be undermined or compromised. But this can and should go hand in hand with good administrative practice.”

King added: “I am also concerned many of the points the council is now relying on to challenge the decision were not raised during the original investigation, despite it having multiple opportunities throughout the process to do so.

“Rossendale council has failed to provide evidence it has considered the report properly, complied with the recommendations or indicate what steps it intends to take. It now needs to consider the original report properly and comply with the recommendations, and provide the remedy to the woman and other people who may have been similarly affected by the council’s actions.”

A council spokesperson said: “We will consider the Ombudsman’s new report through the normal internal processes but have made our position on this clear previously.”

This earlier statement, issued after the first report, read: “We were very disappointed with the Ombudsman’s findings in this case. The report’s conclusions are based on a misunderstanding of the law as set out to Cabinet. Also, the conclusion that 16 weeks is an excessive length does not take into account that this is in line with, and in some cases quicker, than a number of other local authorities despite the pressure the team was under.

“We try to process applications as quickly as possible and we are sorry the complainant in this case feels we caused her undue stress but we have to make sure the process is rigorous and thorough so passengers can have confidence in taxis licensed by us. There is no statutory time limit for process of applications.

“We are therefore unable to accept the report or its recommendations especially as it would set a dangerous precedent for all local authorities responsible for licensing.”

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