Watchdog slams Shropshire Council over way it responds to complaints

A council in Shropshire has been told to get its act together by a national complaints watchdog.

Shropshire Council chief executive Andy Begley
Shropshire Council chief executive Andy Begley

The Local Government Ombudsman has told Shropshire Council in a strongly worded letter to "reflect on its practices and take the necessary steps to improve its liaison with my office".

Shropshire Council said it was "considering ways to improve its response times to Ombudsman enquiries", but admitted that when it came to deciding how its officers spend their time "its priority will always remain delivering services to Shropshire residents".

Michael King, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said on three occasions it had to threaten the council with issuing witness summonses to get the information it required. The council says there was "never a risk" of a summons having to be issued in any of the complex, time consuming processes.

The Ombudsman deals with complaints of maladministration from members of the public who believe they have been caused injustices by the way the council works. It includes complaints about everything from planning to decisions on care packages.

In a letter to council chief executive Andy Begley, Mr King, who also chairs the Commission for Local Administration in England, was not impressed with Shropshire Council's performance during the year 2021-2022. In a letter to the council this week he told the council that delays in resolving problems only adds to people's distress.

Mr King blasted: "During the year, my investigators have raised concerns about your council’s responses to our enquiries; more than three quarters of our enquiries were not responded to within the requested timescales.

"Significantly, in three cases, we had to threaten to issue a witness summons to elicit the information we required.

"I do not take such action lightly and will usually only consider a witness summons where a council has not provided a response after considerable time and despite our continued efforts."

Local Government Ombudsman Michael King

Mr King said he appreciated the pressures councils were under, especially during Covid, but added: "delays to investigations add to the frustration experienced by complainants and can cause further avoidable distress and uncertainty.

"I ask the council to reflect on its practices and take the necessary steps to improve its liaison with my office," he said.

Shropshire Council told the Shropshire Star that it was not always possible to deal with Ombudsman requests for information within 28 days. It said its priority when it comes to deciding what to do will remain the delivery of services to residents.

Tim Collard, the council's assistant director – legal and governance (monitoring officer), said there were three occasions in which there was a threat made to issue a witness summons. But in two of them the Ombudsman found no fault.

Mr Collard said: "Shropshire Council deals with a large number of enquiries from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman every year.

"These range from straightforward requests for more information about a complaint to detailed investigations which require extensive research and collation of considerable volumes of information.

"Generally the council is given 28 days by the Ombudsman to respond to an investigation, whether the issue is current and on-going or it is an historical complaint with no immediate implications.

"Unfortunately it is not always possible to comply with these timescales given that service areas within the council need to deal with these Ombudsman’s enquiries on top of their day to day responsibilities to the public and local communities."

Mr Collard said they will seek an extension in which to respond in some cases. But he added that complexity of issues, volume of paperwork and staff sickness can make even this "challenging".

He added: "As reported by the Ombudsman, in the period from April 2021 to March 2022, there were three occasions in which there was a threat made to issue a witness summons.

"The three cases arose from across the council in children’s services, adult social care and planning and it is perhaps worth noting that in two of the cases the Ombudsman ultimately found no fault on the part of the council."

The council accepts that "that this was unfortunate but at the same time in all three cases, the council had by time of the threats, almost completed its work, preparing detailed responses and collating the many hundreds of pages of supporting documentation, so that it was never a real risk that a witness summons would actually have to be issued."

Mr Collard said whilst the council "is considering ways to improve its response times to Ombudsman enquiries, its priority will always remain delivering services to Shropshire residents."

Every year the Ombudsman reviews how councils have worked and puts the statistics online for the public to compare how their local authority is doing compared to other ones.

In Shropshire the figures show that 42 per cent of complaints investigated by the LGA were upheld. This amounted to a total of just eight upheld decisions.

This is significantly better than the national average of 64 per cent upheld decisions recorded by similar authorities.

During the Covid-affected year the LGO decided not to accept many complaints because of the circumstances that local authorities had to deal with.

The LGO said its statistics are based on a total of 19 detailed investigations for the period between April 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022.

Once the LGO gets involved the statistics show that in 100 per cent of cases it was satisfied that the council has successfully implemented its recommendations. This compares to an average of 99 per cent in similar authorities.

But before the LGO gets involves it has been a different matter.

In none of eight cases the LGO found that the council had provided a satisfactory remedy before the complaint reached the Ombudsman.

Other similar council areas reached a remedy in 12 per cent of cases.

In neighbouring Telford & Wrekin, the LGO upheld 73 per cent of complaints that it investigated, compared to an average of 64 per cent in similar authorities.

In 100 per cent of cases the LGO was satisfied the council had successfully implemented recommendations.

And in 25 per cent of upheld cases the LGO found the council had provided a satisfactory remedy before the complaint reached the Ombudsman. This compares to an average of 12 per cent in similar authorities.

Like Shropshire, Telford & Wrekin Council's chief executive was sent a letter, but unlike its neighbour it was not warned to improve its performance.

Overall in 2020-21 the LGO received and decided fewer complaints than normal because it stopped accepting new complaints for three months. It received 15,826 complaints and enquiries and made 1,848 service improvement recommendations.

A spokesman for the LGO said: "As part of this report we also update our interactive online map with each local authority's individual performance statistics.

"We now have four years' searchable information, including the annual letters we send to chief executives, complaint numbers, uphold rates and the service improvements we have asked them to make on the back of the investigations we have upheld.

"The data also allows people to compare their own local authority's statistics against similar authorities to assess how they are performing too."

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