Five complaints upheld against Bedford Borough Council by watchdog

Bedford Borough Hall

Five complaints against Bedford Borough Council were upheld by the council watchdog in the last year, but the council “doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of”, a meeting heard.

A report to Bedford Borough Council’s Budget & Corporate Overview & Scrutiny Committee (Thursday, December 9) said the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) investigates complaints about local authorities and certain other bodies, including all types of adult social care providers.

Mark Minion, chief officer, customer, communities & front office told the committee that there are two types of inquiry.

“One is an initial inquiry to assess whether the LGO’s team is going to look at it any further,” he said.

“They give us five working days to respond to that, and they just basically look at whether the council has exhausted its own processes, and whether there’s any other concurrent process going on.

“For example, if it’s in a court arena, or whether there is any alleged injustice, in their terms, that could be looked at,” he added.

Mr Minion explained that if a complaint goes into a more formal inquiry, the council has up to 20 working days to respond.

“Often this involves quite complex questions, detailed records that we’ve got to retrieve from the archives, [and we have to] respond appropriately,” he said.

The report showed that there were 23 cases for 2020/21. This included four cases where the council was not required to respond at any point as the LGSCO closed the enquiry.

The report showed that four cases were not responded to within the designated time scales.

Mr Minion explained: “I would add that most of those fell within the very early months of the pandemic, when this council was dealing with a lot of serious issues with our residents and our population.

“Clearly a lot of resources, including myself and my complaints manager, were designated to do other duties, including supporting the community.

“So there wasn’t quite a quick as response as we would have liked. but I think the LGO recognised that across all councils that they would have other priorities during that period,” he said.

Five of the cases were upheld by LGSCO. The area of complaint for four of them was Education & Children’s Services. The findings were categorised in the report as ‘maladministration and injustice’. The area for the fifth upheld case was in Planning & Development (No further action).

Mr Minion confirmed that if the LGSCO makes recommendations in its findings then the council has to evidence that it has followed them.

Councillor Stephen Moon (Conservative, Great Barford Ward) the committee chair, said he was surprised how robust the LGSCO is in looking at alternative actions.

Mr Minion replied: “The LGO always look at whether there is an alternative route to challenge something the council has, or has not, done.

“And areas that people can use are an insurance route or a tribunal route, depending on the nature of the complaint.

“The LGO will look at things which within their jurisdiction, and they feel they can make a difference to in terms of any outcome for the complainant,” he said.

“But if there is a better route in their opinion, that’s what they will suggest to the complainant,” he added.

In summing up the report, councillor Moon added: “I don’t think we have anything particularly to be ashamed of.

“The detail and procedural complexity of some of the areas complained of is very difficult, I know, for the staff to follow.

“It’s very easy for these procedural errors to creep in,” he added

Mr Minion informed the Committee that the LGSCO publishes all its decisions, which are anonymised, on its website.

by John Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter