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Ombudsman fires warning to councils over contracting out and accountability

The Local Government Ombudsman has warned councils that although they can contract out services, they remain responsible for the quality of any service those contractors provide, and for addressing any complaints users of services may have.

“This accountability remains irrespective of whether the provider is a private company, a third sector organisation or another publicly-funded body,” the LGO said.

The Ombudsman’s comments came in a report published after its investigation into a complaint about Somerset County Council brought by the mother of a young adult with Asperger’s Syndrome and hearing difficulties.

An inaccurate assessment of the man’s needs had left him without direct support payments for 14 months, the LGO found.

The support payments helped the man access community facilities and increased his social contacts. However the assessment of his needs carried out by the local NHS Trust decided that these payments should stop in December 2013 as it was wrongly believed he would be starting an apprenticeship.

The young man was never offered an apprenticeship, though, and for 14 months his only contact with the outside world was via his mother and step-father.

The Ombudsman’s report noted that the payments were eventually reinstated in January 2015, and were paid from March 2015, but this had left a 14-month gap in which his mother had to provide the support he needed.

According to the LGO, the county council insisted throughout the investigation that any complaint should be made about the local NHS Trust, which it had contracted to deliver services for young people with Asperger’s Syndrome.

“But as adult social care is a council function the council cannot delegate its obligations to ensure that the man’s social care needs are met,” the Ombudsman said.

It found that Somerset had failed to keep full records of the man’s needs and did not ensure that its contracted provider, the Trust, kept good records either. 

“There was fault in the way the Trust carried out the review of the young man’s care package and as it was carrying out a council function on its behalf, this amounts to fault on the part of Somerset Council,” the LGO said.

The Ombudsman recommended that to remedy the situation, Somerset should:

  • review how it monitors its contracts with third parties to ensure that full records are made of all care reviews and recommendations. This review should take place within three months;
  • take steps, such as staff training, to make sure officers are aware of the council’s contracts with other organisations and the duties and responsibilities arising from these contracts. “The council should ensure officers are fully aware that the council has an ongoing responsibility even where its functions are carried out by another body”;
  • pay the man the sum equivalent to the direct payments he would have received during the period between November 2013 and January 2015, which should equate to £5,938.10;
  • pay the mother £500 for the stress and anxiety in having to support her son’s needs for the 14 months he was without direct payments.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said: “Councils are well within their rights to get best value for money from the care contracts they enter into. However, councils remain responsible for the way those services are provided, and so also remain ultimately responsible for dealing with any complaints.

“With rapidly changing models of local service delivery, we appreciate it can be confusing for both the public and local authorities to understand who is accountable for a local service. We hope that this case will help to bring some clarity to the matter.

“I also hope that my decision will ensure Somerset Council accepts its responsibility for this young man’s social care needs.”

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