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Communities and Local Government - Minutes of EvidenceHC 431
Taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee
on Monday 30 April 2012
Mr Clive Betts (Chair)
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Dr Jane Martin, Chairman of the Commission for Local Administration in England, and Anne Seex, Vice Chairman of the Commission for Local Administration in England.
Q74 Chair: Good afternoon and I welcome you both to our second evidence session for the inquiry into the annual report of the Local Government Ombudsman for England. First of all, I congratulate you both on your appointments, which the Secretary of State has informed us of. The first obvious question is: what difference does this formal appointment on a permanent basis make to you? In fact, just before we begin, could you also say for the record who you are and what your position is now?
Dr Martin: Thank you, Mr Chairman. I am Dr Jane Martin. I am one of the local government ombudsmen and the recently appointed chair of the Commission for Local Administration in England.
Anne Seex: I’m Anne Seex. I was appointed as a local commissioner-or local government ombudsman, as we are known-in 2005. I have recently been appointed as vice-chair of the commission.
Q75 Chair: So, what difference does the appointment make?
Dr Martin: We are delighted to have been invited and confirmed in post as chair and vice-chair of the Commission for Local Administration in England, after what has been a long interregnum period since our predecessor chair retired in 2010. What this means in a nutshell is that a period of uncertainty is now over and we have now got a full complement, as per our statutory requirement, to lead and direct the governance of the commission and to ensure that the Local Government Ombudsman scheme is working effectively.
Anne Seex: I have not got much to add to that. For me personally, it does not make a great deal of difference. In fact, the burden of being chair and ombudsman falls to Jane. The deputy chair is nominal.
Q76 Chair: But there were three and now there are two. Does that make any difference?
Dr Martin: Yes. Tony Redmond retired in November 2010. Since then, Anne and I have been covering for all the local authorities in England, as two ombudsmen. We work within delegated authority to teams of investigators and assistant ombudsmen, and we each have deputy ombudsmen. So we are well served with experienced, professional staff who help to make sure that the LGO scheme deals with all the complaints that it needs to.
None the less, over the last 15 months it has put an extra strain on us; I would certainly like to record my thanks to everybody during the period. But yes, Mr Chairman, you are right. We have now agreed that we will continue in the future with two ombudsmen rather than three. This became apparent to us when we conducted a strategic review of our business, when we were looking to make cost reductions across the organisation. So we have decided to do that, and we are content that the arrangements we are going to put in place will enable us continue with business as usual.
Q77 Chair: When the Secretary of State wrote to us about the appointments, I have to say that the letter he wrote hardly seemed to be a ringing endorsement of how the service has operated in the past. He talked about: appointing yourselves and then having a chief operating officer to undertake the management-type roles that you were previously doing; comprehensive restructuring; a wholly re-engineered process for handling complaints, with a focus on those cases involving serious failure; and a root-and-branch review as to whether it is fit for modern purpose. That seems to imply that he is expecting something an awful lot better than he had in the past.
Dr Martin: I hope that we will continue to maintain the standards we maintained in the past, but also to improve the service that we give to citizens in the future. I think you are aware from our submission that, since we were made aware by the Department of budget cuts required as part of the financial constraints, which we completely understand, we will look at the way in which we conduct our business. In order to do that, from around May 2011 we began a strategic business review. So this really was led by how we could deliver better value for money for the citizen from our service. The business review highlighted ways in which we might develop our business model, and indeed that is what we have chosen to do. I would not say that we were not providing a good service in the past, and in fact, Baroness Rennie Fritchie, who led the review for us, was at pains to say that this is not an organisation in need of repair but one that wants to do better. That is what we hope to do in the future.
Q78 Chair: So why has the Secretary of State mentioned the idea of a root-and-branch review of whether the service is fit for modern purpose? He talked about re-engineering, comprehensive restructuring and in particular this new post, which seems to imply his concern that ombudsmen in the past might have been too involved in the managerial nitty-gritty of the organisation, and were not spending enough time doing what he now wants you to deal with, which is the strategic direction of the commission and the quasi-judicial role, which is your primary purpose, is it not?
Dr Martin: That is absolutely right. Among the arrangements that we are putting in place now, as you rightly referred to, is the appointment of a chief operating officer for the commission. We hope that this will give us a more effective approach to our governance. The commission has a statutory function to ensure that the Local Government Ombudsman can conduct its role-our role-in investigating and deciding complaints. In the past, the chairman’s role has also been that of the accounting officer. We feel now that the arrangements that we are putting in place, under which we will have a separation of roles, will actually give greater clarity and greater focus on the strategic role of the commission to provide for the Local Government Ombudsman scheme; we will have the proper executive support that we need in order for that to work effectively.
Q79 Chair: Does that mean that you-both of you-spent too much time in the past doing minor management control, as opposed to strategic view?
Anne Seex: No, I think it means that when there were three ombudsmen and one of them was the chair, the accounting officer and de facto chief executive of the organisation, there was the capacity among the three ombudsmen to deal with the issues as Jane described-the budgeting, the relationship with DCLG and the overall governance of the Commission for Local Administration, as opposed to the work of the ombudsmen, which is quite different and distinct. If you are going to reduce the number of post holders from three to two, something needs to give. I do not want to speak for Jane, but I think that the position for me as I am sure it is for her is that our prime interest is in being ombudsmen-we obviously want to secure good governance of our organisation, but I think my prime interest and focus is complaints.
Q80 Chair: So your prime focus is this quasi-judicial role that the Secretary of State drew attention to as your prime role. Is there a problem in exercising that? Do either of you have legal background or qualifications or a history of working in that sort of role?
Anne Seex: No, I don’t think so.
Dr Martin: No, neither have I. It is worth pointing out that we were appointed at separate times as local government ombudsmen, and being a lawyer or having legal experience was not part of the role. What we bring, I hope, is a common-sense approach to administrative justice. We have legal advisers and professional staff to ensure that our investigations are conducted impartially and robustly, working within a legal and regulatory framework. But our role as ombudsmen with the authority vested in us is to make findings and recommendations of remedy based on the evidence and facts put in front of us.
Q81 Chair: Right. I might come back to that, eventually.
In terms of the uncertainties around in the past few months, it has taken an awfully long time to agree a new grant memorandum, hasn’t it? That must have caused a lot of uncertainty. Has it affected the operation of the commission?
Dr Martin: On a day-to-day basis, it has caused some delay from time to time. Not having a grant memorandum for a period of time has, I think, not helped with the clarity in the way we have been able to respond to requests for information, from time to time, from the Department. But I want to assure the Committee that although we have not had a grant memorandum for a period of time, we do of course work within "Managing Public Money" Treasury frameworks and we have internal and external audits. I am very satisfied that, and can assure you and the public that, the organisation has been working very effectively without having confirmed a new grant memorandum.
However, I agree with you that it has been more than disappointing that the grant memorandum has not been superseded by a framework document, which is what was intended. We raised our concerns last year about progress not being made. We have worked with the Department over a number of weeks and with a number of drafts, but there has for some time now been a delay. We hope that now, having confirmed a new chair and vice-chair in post, we will be able to prioritise the framework document with the Department, to reflect the new arrangements.
Q82 Chair: The Department may be blamed for some things-lack of progress-but as an ombudsman service you presumably have to be absolutely clear that your internal arrangements are correct. I understand that your own audit committee has expressed concern on a number of occasions about lack of progress in implementing management actions after internal audit recommendations. That hardly gives the best of images, does it, about the sort of good administration that you would want to see local councils deliver?
Dr Martin: I can understand that you might draw that conclusion but, again, we have made great strides in recent months, particularly in looking at the point you are raising-the outstanding recommendations from internal audit. I don’t have the figures in front of me, but I can certainly assure the Committee that we have worked hard to make sure that those recommendations have been brought down to a minimum-certainly any of them that were of high risk to us. There was certainly a delay, but I am satisfied now that we are making good strides to make sure that that is not the case, and that it will not be the case in the future.
Q83 Heather Wheeler: I am interested in the number of complaints you are receiving and the number of contacts you are dealing with. The numbers seem absolutely vast to me, frankly. The level of increase in complaints year on year, from 11% up to 20%-that sort of level-is huge. I am interested in what you think is driving the increases in the number of complaints you are receiving.
Anne Seex: It is interesting. We look over quite long terms, and when you examine trends over 10 years there are variations between years, but over a 10-year period they are not that significant. There is probably a study in the epidemiology of complaints to be done, to work out what is the naturally occurring incidence of complaints.
There is evidence that the volume of complaints to us follows trends in the world outside. The number of planning applications has decreased, the number of planning decisions has decreased, and the number of complaints to us about planning has decreased, in an almost perfectly matching curve. Similarly, everyone in this room will be aware of the pressures on adult social care budgets-you have heard evidence from someone involved in special educational needs and parents groups. Reviews and the White Paper have been clear about the pressure on them, and such complaints are going up. They are still a very small proportion of all the transactions that take place between local authorities and citizens, and between adult social care providers and service users.
Q84 Heather Wheeler: You have given me very good background on how whatever is happening to you is just a trend that is matched elsewhere, which is a very good answer. I’m quite impressed by it, to be honest-I hadn’t thought of that one. But I was wondering whether if, at the minute, these increases in complaints mean that the public are having to wait a long time for a reply and for the matter to go through your process? Does it mean that, as night follows day, it will take longer to close a file?
Anne Seex: In the past it would have done, but we started a new advice service in 2008 as a front end to our organisation whereby the advisers deal with telephone inquiries and with incoming complaints by e-mail and letter. They do a first sift to find those that are within our power to investigate. They give advice to people and also deal with premature complaints. That front end is able to deal quite expeditiously with reasonably significant variations in incoming complaints and forward to us those that we can investigate, and those where people will not accept the adviser’s advice, so that we can deal with them.
The re-engineering of our organisation will increase the focus on a quick assessment of what can and should be investigated with the resources that we have. There is undoubtedly a danger that a big increase in complaints and a reduction in our resources will lead to backlogs, but our approach-as set out in our transformation plan-is to try to ensure, as far as we possibly can, that that does not happen and to minimise the impact of it. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the highest number of complaints that we decided in any one year was more than 12,500. We are not quite back to that level of complaint handling yet.
Q85 Heather Wheeler: With unemployment figures, we are used to different sets of stats, such as people who have been unemployed for more than six months, a year or two years. Do you keep stats for how long you have cases open that have not been resolved?
Anne Seex: Yes.
Q86 Heather Wheeler: Have you seen any sort of increase in length? Has the number of cases that have taken more than six months or a year to resolve increased?
Anne Seex: Yes, we have, and that is linked with the increase in the number of adult social care complaints, which tend to require a long time, for two reasons: first, a large volume of paperwork is usually generated before they get to us; and, secondly, emotions can be very high, and they need extra careful handling. Additionally, the issues can be very complex. We have seen an increase in complaints that are taking us longer, and I think that is largely related to the complexity of the complaints.
Q87 Simon Danczuk: You mentioned the strategic business review. I know that the summary has been published, but has the whole report been published in public?
Dr Martin: No, the summary is what we have made available publicly. The reason why we wanted to do that was that we wanted to show the response of the commission to what the review was recommending. I think that what you have already had access to is what has been made available publicly.
Q88 Simon Danczuk: Why would you not publish the whole business review?
Dr Martin: Because we felt that it was more helpful to our staff, the public and the sponsor Department to have the strategic review with the commission’s response. It was a strategic review commissioned by the commission. We asked for it to be done and we set the terms of reference, but we wanted it to be an objective, independent piece of work, and we are satisfied that it was. We wanted, as I have said, to publish our response to the recommendation, so that was the approach we took.
Q89 Simon Danczuk: So you thought it would be helpful not to publish all the information.
Dr Martin: From memory, I do not think that anything was held back that was not substantial to the review, but I am happy to go back and check.
Q90 Simon Danczuk: You are not a competitive organisation-you are a public body to all intents and purposes-so I am puzzled as to why you would not publish the whole of the review. In this case, it would be helpful for the purposes of scrutiny.
Dr Martin: Yes, of course.
Q91 Simon Danczuk: You made the point earlier that the person doing the review said that there was no need for repair, but that it was just a case of the organisation wanting to do better. The summary makes it clear that "Staff performance data suggest that the bottom 20% of performers handle some 10% of the case throughput, and their performance is considerably below the mean." It goes on to say: "Some corporate functions have staffing levels that this review believes are difficult to justify". It also says: "a significant proportion of operational administrative support (20%) is to provide basic administrative and office support activities."
When I was reading this summary on the way down here, it conjured up an image of the 1950s, with typing pools, carbon paper, tea trolleys going round and bowler hats. That is the sort of image I got from reading the summary of the review. How do you respond to the criticism in the review and the perception that it creates for people?
Dr Martin: Well, I would always describe the ombudsman as traditional, but I don’t quite recognise the picture that you painted.
I hope that the points that you have raised make the point that we were absolutely holding ourselves up to scrutiny as an organisation-that was what we wanted to do. We knew that we had to deliver better value for money and cost reductions. We saw this as an opportunity to look at the way in which we do business.
What you have read out is from the review. As a result of it, we put together a transformation plan, and we are cutting staff and taking out costs throughout the organisation, and putting in place a revised business model which, as Anne has already mentioned, will focus much more carefully-and, we hope, efficiently-on the front end of the business model, so that, as I think was mentioned in the strategic review, we are giving complainants as quick a response as we can in relation to whether their complaint would be investigated.
I can only reiterate what was said: we were not an organisation that was not seeking to do the best it could, but we want to be more efficient, and we welcome the points that were made in the review.
Q92 Simon Danczuk: What level of staff reductions are you going to make by 2015?
Dr Martin: By 2015, we are going to reduce the overall staffing complement by 23.5 posts, which will bring it down to 175.5 full-time equivalent posts. We will reduce the senior management team and the management cadre from what we call assistant ombudsman; their jobs will be changed to assistant directors. We are reducing from 12-it was already under establishment-to eight. We will reduce investigators across the piece and take staff out of corporate services. We are looking to see where we can be efficient throughout the organisation.
Q93 Simon Danczuk: Will all the operation move to Coventry?
Dr Martin: We are committed to relocating to Coventry-certainly for our head office function. I should stress that the detail of the transformation plan and the costs associated with that are still being worked through, but our plan is quite clear that all our function will be in Coventry. That is a proposal because we think that delivers least disruption. This is fit for purpose-there is fit-for-purpose accommodation-and it is very cost-effective. However, we will not rule out the possibility of having investigative staff, particularly, based in London and York, because we want to ensure that we retain the best investigative staff we can as we move to a new business model. Those things have yet to be worked through. For example, we already have some staff who are home-based, and we may do more of that, but we are committed throughout the period to consolidate, as far as we can, to the Coventry office.
Q94 Mark Pawsey: Given that I am a Member of Parliament with a constituency immediately adjacent to Coventry, I am highly delighted to hear that you are looking to relocate there, where the costs of operating are substantially less than they would be if you retained a presence in London. You are very welcome in Coventry, and we look forward to you doing as much as you can there.
You mentioned a moment ago that by 2015 you will have 175 staff, which is a reduction of 23 posts. Can I ask you how many of that 175 will be investigators? I am trying to get an understanding of the staff mix between those who do the investigations and the support staff.
Dr Martin: I have to confess that I do not think that I can put my hand on that figure, but we can certainly get it for you.
Q95 Mark Pawsey: You did say that as your staff level drops by 23 posts, some of those will be investigators, so the number of investigators would reduce. Is that pro rata, or can you organise yourself so that more time is spent investigating, and less time and staff resource are put on support services?
Dr Martin: Yes. I am happy to provide you with the detail following the meeting, but we will be reducing down to fewer investigative teams, and we will also be reallocating some of our investigative staff into what we are calling an assessment unit. They will be dealing with more complaints in a more efficient way. We will make the best use that we possibly can of investigative staff within the organisation, but we will have fewer of them.
Q96 Mark Pawsey: Right. I wonder whether I can ask about what filtering system you have. One of the pieces of evidence that we have is that there almost seems to be too many cases. How do you go about filtering out what goes on to a full-blown investigation and what is dealt with in a less detailed way?
Anne Seex: Our transformation plan sets up an assessment process that will be run by a small number of staff who are currently investigators. People may be able to move between investigation and assessment, but the purpose of concentrating that assessment of complaints into a smaller number of hands, with team leaders working with the staff, is that we as ombudsmen will be able to work more effectively with a smaller group of people and to give regular guidance on the principles and values to be applied on which complaints are selected for investigation and which are not.
By separating out the assessment process-people might not like the decision not to investigate their complaint, but they will hear it quickly and swiftly-we will not be mixing up long-term, complex investigations with the faster decisions out of an assessment. That will mean that the investigators get a complaint, and it will be clear why we have decided to investigate and what we expect the public value to be achieved by that investigation, in addition to remedying the individual justice for the citizen who has brought the complaint. We do not know what the outcome of that will be, because we have never done it before. We believe that being able to concentrate on those two processes distinctly will give faster decisions and more effective investigations.
Q97 Mark Pawsey: So are you saying that every case is investigated?
Anne Seex: No. I am saying that it will be as it is now.
Q98 Mark Pawsey: So what proportion of cases is currently investigated, and what proportion is dealt with at an initial assessment without the need to go into investigation?
Anne Seex: At the moment it is only an investigator who makes decisions, unless it goes up the line to an assistant ombudsman or an ombudsman. In the past year we have decided not to investigate 30% of the complaints that have been made to us.
Q99 Mark Pawsey: The experience from the Republic of Ireland and the Scottish ombudsmen suggests that 70% can be dealt with. Now, there is a big gap between your 30% and those bodies’ 70%. Would you like to account for that?
Anne Seex: I think that the accounting for that comes from the fact that they have adopted a clear separation between assessment and investigation. That is what we are proposing to do, but we have not done it yet.
Q100 Mark Pawsey: Why are those two bodies so far ahead of us in process terms?
Anne Seex: I can only pay tribute to and compliment our colleagues in Scotland and Ireland for that.
Q101 Mark Pawsey: But that does not answer the question, does it? Why are they light years ahead of where we are right now?
Anne Seex: Well, the Irish ombudsman was forced by economic circumstances in Ireland to reduce its budget dramatically-that was part of its response to that. All ombudsmen understand that you do not investigate every complaint. You need to be clear and fast in making decisions about what you do and what you do not. Scotland has been agile and focused on achieving value for money and good practice.
Q102 Mark Pawsey: Should we not be agile and focused on achieving value for money?
Anne Seex: We should, indeed. We have to take that criticism on the chin. We could have been better and faster at doing this.
Q103 Mark Pawsey: Right. And how about the level of discretion given to investigators? Who determines how much autonomy an individual investigator would have?
Anne Seex: When an individual investigator is given delegated authority by an ombudsman, they have authority to decide which complaints to investigate, what remedy is appropriate if they have found something wrong and at what point to end their investigation. If they do not have delegated authority to complete an investigation and issue a report, that is reserved to Jane and I as ombudsmen.
Q104 Mark Pawsey: So what proportion of cases that come to the ombudsman pass over your desks?
Anne Seex: That is not just about delegation; that is about what complaints we want to see, and that can change over time. For example, at the moment I want to see every complaint that we are dealing with at the decision point on our adult social care jurisdiction over privately arranged and funded social care. It was new to us. We needed to do some learning and develop the whole organisation, and particularly the specialist teams, to be able to deal with them. I want to know what is happening out there-what is going on in my name-so I see all those decisions before they are made. Similarly, I saw all the decisions on complaints by parents and pupils about schools.
Q105 Mark Pawsey: But there are other areas where you wouldn’t take such a detailed interest.
Anne Seex: There are other areas where I wouldn’t take such a detailed interest.
Q106 Chair: We have had reports, though, that it has taken months for you to come to a decision. People who have put in a grievance tend to ring up to find out where they are at only to be told they are on your desk, and that has been for literally months-I am not talking about two or three months, but six months, or up to a year.
Anne Seex: That is true.
Q107 Chair: Is that reasonable?
Anne Seex: No, it is not reasonable, and it is an unfortunate by-product of the interregnum that we have been through. It isn’t typical, and it certainly isn’t typical of our whole organisation, where 85% of complaints are decided within 26 weeks.
Q108 Chair: Sorry, but why is it a by-product of the interregnum? There have been two of you there for some time. There are two of you there now. Why should it take up to 12 months for you, as an individual, to decide some issues?
Anne Seex: It shouldn’t. In an ideal world, you would not want that. You would want to be able to pick up a complex case straight away and to devote all the time it needed to reach a decision, but that is not often the world we are in. Sometimes the case is incomplete. Sometimes it takes a long time to complete the work, get additional information and reach a view.
Q109 Chair: When someone out there is waiting for a decision, taking 12 months sounds a bit to me like maladministration.
Anne Seex: Very probably. It is not something that we want to see happen, but it is not that that case is sitting there waiting and action is not being taken, or the work isn’t being done. It is about how much time you can devote to one particular issue among all the others that need dealing with.
Q110 Chair: Maybe it is a lack of delegation.
Anne Seex: You cannot delegate everything, and the things that have come to the ombudsman are things that are particularly troublesome or complex.
Dr Martin: If I might add, my experience is that those few cases that can take 52 weeks or a little longer are very complex. Sometimes it is possible for us not to make clear to the complainant the process that we are going through, so, for example-obviously, I am not aware of any cases that you are particularly thinking of-it is the case that a complaint will perhaps be reopened. A complainant will represent further evidence to us, which they are at liberty to do; in fact, we always make sure that we are open to complainants presenting new evidence to us. When we have either discontinued or closed a case, we will always consider reopening. Sometimes, without getting into the detail of particular cases, these things can take longer because we will consider new evidence and reopen a case.
Q111 Chair: But there are cases-Anne Seex would probably know, without going into individuals-which haven’t had new evidence and haven’t been reopened, but have still taken that sort of time.
Dr Martin: Okay.
Q112 Chair: It’s not acceptable, is it?
Dr Martin: No, it isn’t acceptable, but sometimes it is perfectly possible for some cases to be complex enough that they require further inquiries, and they do take-
Q113 Chair: Some may do, but if they don’t, there isn’t an excuse.
Dr Martin: Yes, of course.
Q114 George Hollingbery: Just carrying on with one or two of these lines of inquiry, we are talking about a great deal less in the way of resource in the unit, with a similar structure at the top as you have had in the past year. Are we not to expect that these delays are going to get longer and longer, despite the change in pre-screening? That will absorb some of the issues, but is it not going to get worse?
Anne Seex: I hope not. There is a difference between knowing that you are going to be working with two ombudsmen and being able to plan and structure things accordingly, and working in a period where you are not quite sure what is going to happen and how many changes you should make pending the appointment of somebody to be the chair and de facto chief executive of an organisation. The particular challenge for us during this period is the uncertainty. Clearly, going down from three people to two people dealing with those complex cases will have an impact, but, like Jane, I am confident that the arrangements we are proposing in our transformation plan and hope to implement will mean that we can work very effectively.
Q115 George Hollingbery: How do you compare with the Scottish or Irish service in terms of numbers of complaints dealt with, complexity, and outcomes?
Dr Martin: As far as we are aware, our figures stack up very well against other schemes. We do deal with very high volumes-much higher volumes-but I am not suggesting that as a defensive point.
Q116 George Hollingbery: How do you compare with those two? They have gone through a similar process, particularly in Ireland, of downsizing and so on. Have you taken the time to go and talk to them about what they did and how they transformed the service?
Dr Martin: Absolutely; we have indeed. That is why we are learning lessons from those organisations and will be putting those into place in the transformation plan. We are under no illusions, so that is why we have a transformation plan.
If I might add to the points that Anne made, it is very important to note that, now we have been confirmed in post, the uncertainty has gone. In my role as chair, I want to assure the Committee that we will now be moving ahead swiftly with changes that perhaps should have been done more speedily in the past, but we were just not in a position to do so.
Q117 George Hollingbery: Okay. Can I just ask about school places, social care and so on? You are seeing all of these cases. Can you tell me in how many cases you overturned the decision that was sent up to you for adjudication?
Anne Seex: They are not sent to me for adjudication.
Q118 George Hollingbery: Well, for you to have a look at the case.
Anne Seex: I see the decision before it is made. I have asked in a number of cases in adult social care for some further investigation to be done. I have suggested in others perhaps clearer ways of explaining the decision to people who might not naturally relate to the language that our staff have become accustomed to using. It is not an overturning of the investigator’s decision. I see it very much as working with the investigators to help, support, and give them guidance about the kinds of factors that they should be taking into account and the degree of rigour that they should be bringing to it.
Q119 George Hollingbery: Is your job to be an investigator in very complex cases, or is it to oversee work done by others?
Anne Seex: It is to oversee work done by others.
Q120 George Hollingbery: So you do not get directly involved in any cases at all.
Anne Seex: I do not have my own case load, but cases are referred to me for a variety of reasons, and we deal with every complaint that goes to report.
Dr Martin: That was the point that I wanted to make. Every case that goes to report is signed by the ombudsman, so we do get closely involved when it is getting to report stage. The report is ours. It is written for us, and we will usually be more closely involved with that.
We also get involved when a case is moving beyond the average time scale. Both of us will see cases and want to know why things have not been moving, and perhaps make suggestions as to how the investigation should proceed from here on in. So there are key points at which we will get involved to support the investigators and the assistant ombudsman in their work.
Q121 George Hollingbery: Is the client informed of these potential pinch points?
Dr Martin: I would say that that would usually be the case.
Q122 George Hollingbery: Usually, or it is? Why would there be discretion over this? They are either kept in the loop or they are not.
Dr Martin: They should always be kept in the loop. We keep in touch with complainants on a regular basis. Certainly, if something was coming through for a case conference with me, I would normally expect that to be communicated to the complainant.
Q123 George Hollingbery: And to be told that there is a delay because of x, y, and z. It seems to me to be about managing expectations. It would seem to be very useful to you if you could deal with it.
Dr Martin: I completely agree. We try to work so there is no delay that needs to be communicated, but complainants would certainly want to know when the ombudsman was being involved in their case.
Q124 George Hollingbery: It seems to me that, across the piece, life is becoming a lot more complex in the delivery of services. It was always local authorities that were delivering services, and that has become increasingly spread across private business and so on with public-private partnerships. We have had the Health and Social Care Bill and health and wellbeing boards. Do you think it is time to look at the model very, very carefully and maybe completely redesign it for a new world? It seems to me that there are so many changes coming, so many bodies that need to be audited and so many complaints coming from different streams of work, controlled by all sorts of different people with different paymasters and different policy agendas, that your body of knowledge will have to become absolutely enormous. Is it time that we began to look at the whole ombudsman service and say, "Actually, something altogether different needs to happen here"?
Anne Seex: Presumably, that is why you are inquiring into the Local Government Ombudsman, and the world is certainly more complex. As you will know, there is a great danger of people falling down the gaps between health and social care, and things not joining up properly. Through the regulatory reform order that was introduced some time ago, we have powers of joint investigation with the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. The biggest proportion of those complaints is around health.
We see a division created as a result of the Localism Act 2011 between our powers to look at the role of a local authority as the strategic housing authority and the independent Housing Ombudsman looking at its role as a landlord, for those people who are still council tenants. That will add complexity but we have, through the Localism Act, secured the power to work and do shared services with the independent Housing Ombudsman to do joint investigations, so we can join up these things.
There is no doubt that the world is getting more complex-it is not just in terms of complex organisational structures and who pays for what; it is increasingly complex in terms of competing rights of citizens and competing issues that are not always compatible with each other. If I could use an example from adult social care, you have the anxiety and natural inclination of adult children to want to know a great deal about what is happening with their parents’ care. At the same time there is the right of the parent to have personal and private information kept confidential. You have council officers and care home managers managing those issues. Mostly they manage them very well, but if they go wrong it can be difficult to unpick the strands and work out who did right and who did wrong.
Q125 George Hollingbery: I think I am right in saying that you work closely with the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Housing Ombudsman and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. If I gave you a blank piece of paper, would you start from here?
Anne Seex: Probably not. Brian Thompson made the point in his evidence that, with 50 million people or more in this country generating complaints, the work has to be divided in some way or another. Historically it has fallen to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, then the Health Service Ombudsman was introduced, the Local Government Ombudsman, and then various other ombudsmen and adjudicators.
What you need to find out is the likely generation of complaints; what role does the country want ombudsmen to play in administrative justice, and how can that best be secured? I think the greatest overlap in our work will come with the Health Service Ombudsman. There is clearly an overlap with housing. Whether that is best brought together and then divided up on some other basis to make it workable and manageable is something that could be reviewed.
Q126 George Hollingbery: It is perfectly illustrated by the fact that an investigation by yourself and a different ombudsman service on the same case reached different conclusions. That goes to show that the world is a complex place and people come at it from different points of view. Perhaps a combined service might be better.
Anne Seex: Yes. That comes from the evidence of Mr and Mrs Wain in their written submission. I think that complaint was in 2000-01, long before my time, and certainly long before Jane’s. It is difficult for us to comment on that now. I would say that since that time-and it may very well have been a factor, I don’t know-the regulatory reform order was secured at the request of both the Parliamentary and Health Service and Local Government Ombudsmen, so that that should not happen in future.
Dr Martin: I just want to add that the way we should be looking at things now is to ensure the best, clear, public access to the ombudsman scheme, whether ourselves, housing, Parliament or health. We would be very willing to explore ways in which we could work with our colleagues, first and foremost, to ensure that clear public access. We would all agree with you that it is already complicated and is likely to get more complicated, given the direction of policy in relation to Open Public Services and the like.
We should be working hard to get that clarity. We also ought to be working harder together to join up our operations. Anne referred to joint investigations, and we have already had a number of conversations with the new Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to redouble our efforts to streamline our processes, so that both our organisations work closely together. So I think there is a lot that could be done and can be done in an organic way to make sure that we are working more effectively to give the public the best service they can get.
Q127 Bob Blackman: Just on this point of filtering and deciding what you are going to investigate and what you are not, you said that there are 95,000 initial contacts of which 11,000 end up as complaints. So roughly eight out of nine people go away because they have gone to the wrong place or they have another means of complaining or whatever. But those one in nine go through. In my experience, limited use is made, for example, of councillors who may have dealt with complaints initially yet do not always necessarily sign up to the complaint. They do not supply all the information they have used. Have you considered using that as one of the key stops in the mechanism before you start investigating?
Dr Martin: We have a clear policy position which is that we expect complainants to go to the body in jurisdiction, that is, councils, first of all.
Q128 Bob Blackman: Sorry-councils are one thing. People will complain to councils. What I am talking about is that normally they should go to-I am not asking them to come to me. Obviously they come to MPs to get advice. They will go to councillors. Councillors will have investigated. They will have done something. It would save an enormous amount of time if, when people make their complaint, they detail all the complaints that have been made through their councillor and their councillor signs up and says, "This is what we have done already. That is why we have banged our head against the brick wall and cannot get anything." That would cut down your work quite a lot, wouldn’t it?
Dr Martin: It may do. As you probably know, we used to operate under a system whereby people would go to their councillors before going to the local government ombudsman. That was changed so that people come directly to us. I think that has generally been regarded as a good thing in order to get direct access. However, I think what you are suggesting is that we may be missing something in trying to expedite that direct access. It would be interesting to see what the experience of the housing ombudsman is in relation to the arrangements that have been put in place for his new jurisdiction and perhaps we could learn from that.
Q129 Heather Wheeler: You are getting round to my next area of questions. There seems to be a lack of joined-up work between the councils and the LGO. I am wondering whether there should be some sort of framework or perhaps people need to know what that framework is. Obviously they should have gone through the council’s complaints procedure and then if they are not satisfied with that then, in your phrase, you are there to give them justice and put them back in the position they should have been in if the maladministration had not happened. From the work that I have seen you guys do for my constituents-that just does not happen. The outcome was, "You can have £350." The court case costs £33,000. You have not given him his £33,000. You have not given him a new court date. He has £350: "Quite right, Lad. It all went wrong. Terribly sorry." I just don’t think people are happy.
Dr Martin: We are not the courts. We don’t pretend to be.
Q130 Heather Wheeler: No. But you cannot put him back in the position he should have been in which should have been either a new court date-you cannot give him that-or £33,000 so that at least he is not out of pocket because the council did something wrong or whatever it was. You said the council did something wrong. Here is £350.
Anne Seex: It is very difficult to comment on a specific case, which is clearly in your mind, without knowing what it is. Our aim is to try to put the person who has been affected by maladministration or failings in service back in the position they would have been in if that had not occurred. Sometimes that is simply not possible. I issued a report last year about a council which, quite wrongly, interfered with a woman’s right to see her dying mother. Her mother died before she was able to see her. The council accepted that its officers had acted in error. It only happened over a short period of time, but it was a critical period of time. In that case there is no remedy for that injustice but the woman who complained to us was very satisfied by the council’s acknowledgment of its wrong, its very sincere apology for what had happened and was content to have a memorial to her mother created by the council.
Q131 Heather Wheeler: Do you think there is any benefit at all in going directly to you for a complaint rather than going through the council’s complaints procedure first?
Dr Martin: Yes, certainly when things are urgent. I am thinking of homelessness cases where people feel that they have not been treated fairly by the council in its allocation of temporary accommodation and the like. We will always consider urgent cases like that. If people come to us directly, we do not send them back to the council to go and work it out. When there are urgent homeless matters in front of us, we will take them on and look at them quickly. You only have to look at our report to see where we have got redress for people who have not been dealt with fairly by their council. We ask the council to put things right as speedily as possible.
Q132 Heather Wheeler: I am almost hearing that your function is bipolar, because on the one hand, you react incredibly quickly, but on the other, we hear that there are not limits-that a council should reply within x days to any complaints you handle or a complaint might take six months or a year to resolve. You deal with urgent cases, but you do not have urgency in cases. Should there be time limits? Should every council reply within seven days or 14 days? Perhaps you have that framework and the public do not know it, or somehow it gets lost.
Anne Seex: We do. We ask local authorities to respond to us within 28 days and each year we produce-
Q133 Heather Wheeler: Twenty-eight days? Freedom of information requests are subject to a time limit of 20 days, so why is your time limit longer than an FOI request would be?
Dr Martin: Because we found that broadly speaking it works well. If I may say so, I have been in this post for just over two years now and one of the really important things to remember about the ombudsman scheme is that we work flexibly. We always look to see what we can do for the complainant as soon as we can. We are very willing to hold our hands up and say that we need to do more of that better, which is what we want to achieve. I think that it is really disproportionate to ignore all the good work that our investigators do in a very timely fashion, although I recognise that some complaints take too long and that is not acceptable.
I want to assure you that, particularly in cases of homelessness or where there have been special educational needs matters that have not been dealt with speedily, we will do our best to resolve things as soon as we can. We do that in all cases. Sometimes it is easier to do that than at other times, but that is our approach.
Anne Seex: Can I add to that? We publish on our website the exceptions that we will normally make to the legal requirement for a complaint to be made to the council first. The largest category of complaints that we always make that exception for is school admission complaints, because the time available to get the child’s future settled is so short.
Q134 Chair: Okay. Bear it in mind that we are putting points to you that have been put to us. We do not know the accuracy of them, but we nevertheless have to try to test them out. One concern that has been raised, and was raised last week in evidence, is that the ombudsman service is seen as being too close to local authorities, and indeed it probably goes further than that. It is said that if the people at the top of the ombudsman service happen to know people at the top of a particular local authority, then cosy arrangements are arranged and the same amount of rigor is not applied to those cases as would apply to others. That may not be true, but if there is such a perception out there, is that of concern to you?
Dr Martin: If there is a perception, it is a concern to us, because we cannot and do not work in that way. All our decisions, findings and routes to remedy are based on the evidence-the facts of the matter-and it is absolutely critical that the public have confidence that the investigations we carry out are impartial and independent. It might be worth reminding ourselves of some of the statistics. Looking back at the statistics for 2010-11, they record an increasing number of remedies where we asked a council to review policy or procedure. That amounted to 288 and was an increasing trend, which is an indication to me that we are doing our best to ensure that local authorities are held to account for changing their practice and procedure.
Of all our outcomes, it is true that just under half for the period that we are looking at-47%-result in no maladministration outcomes. Does that suggest a too cosy relationship? I do not think so. Last but not least, the number of reports that we are producing has gone up in this last year from 29 in the year that you have our annual report for to 47. Again, quite a significant upward trend, although the 29 does look like it was a blip. I suppose I would just use those figures to demonstrate to you and the wider public that we absolutely take our jobs seriously in making sure that we are not, as it were, too cosy to local authorities.
Having said all that, we are not an adversarial system. It is worth pointing out that we need to understand how local authorities work, as well as fully understand the complainant’s situation, in order that we can help to resolve it. We have to ensure that we understand the context in which we are working.
Q135 Chair: Right. I am interested to know, in terms of the public reports, whether 47 is a large number in historical terms as opposed to a larger number than the previous year. My understanding is that there seems to be more attempt now-after the interim report has been produced-to go and talk to local authorities and see if an arrangement can be made for them to perhaps accept your findings. The complainant may be satisfied that they get their particular issue resolved, but no public report is produced. An authority that may have behaved very badly does not get criticised, and no wider information about that issue is made available, so other people who may have experienced similar problems with that authority do not get to know about it. Does that not give an indication that perhaps there is that too cosy a relationship?
Dr Martin: Again, I would be sorry to hear if it was giving that impression. We should take that very seriously. As a matter of fact, I do not have the precise numbers, but I know that we are tending towards issuing more reports that are what we describe as remedy-agreed. Again, that gives you an indication that we are not, shall I say, covering up. We actually want to opt for a public report, because we recognise that there are wider public interest issues. It is just one indication-quite a strong indication, I hope-that we want to make matters public.
The other thing I should mention is that we have plans in place to publish all our statements on all our decisions. We communicate all our decisions by a statement of reasons. We are working through a project now, and I hope within the next 12 months it will be the case that we will be publishing all those decisions.
Q136 Chair: So even if you come to an agreement with the council in future, you would still publish that?
Dr Martin: Yes. That is our intention.
Q137 Chair: So it would be a public report?
Dr Martin: Well, it will not have the same status as a public report, but it will be public. It will be on our website and available for the public to see. We feel this is very important, because it does appear to us that sometimes the public do not get quite the right impression about the way in which we do our work, because they see only a very small number of reports, and we do not think that that is right. We want to give full transparency to the public about the work that we do. It would certainly deal with the challenge that you have put to us.
Q138 Chair: Right. You say you are not an adversarial organisation, but you clearly have this quasi-judicial role, which is what the service is founded on. The second major criticism is, as someone said to us, that you are becoming more like a customer care organisation, trying to resolve things without any degree of conflict, when actually people probably want a bit of conflict. They feel that they have experienced maladministration and they want it sorting out. They want someone held to account in a rigorous way with the evidence clearly and properly examined. Do you feel you can always demonstrate that you do that and that your staff have the skills to do it?
Anne Seex: Yes. That is why we are confident that we should publish all our decisions, and then people will be able to look at them on the website and see. We have some work to do to make sure that we are explaining things in a consistent way. The issues of local settlements are interesting. People make the criticism that local authorities’ chief executives became ombudsmen and started to go soft on local authorities. In fact, the rough percentages of local settlements did not change greatly, except there was a great increase in 2000-01, 2001-02, 2002-03 when the commission was dealing with an enormous number of housing benefit complaints. For whatever reason, the state of housing benefit administration across the country was in chaos. We were getting enormous numbers of complaints and I think that is where the pragmatism came in. What can we add that the housing benefit inspectorate and the Audit Commission are not adding to statements about systems that clearly weren’t working? Our role in legislation is to deal with individual complaints and remedy-well, we can have the power to recommend remedy for individual injustice. That is where the pragmatism came in.
We are an evolving institution and organisation. All the public sector ombudsmen are going through similar stages of evolution; some are evolving faster and possibly more effectively than others. That is what we went through, at that point-neither Jane nor I were there, but it seems an entirely defensible and sensible use of public resources and public money-but we are now at a stage where we are moving into a different external environment and there are a different set of requirements and expectations on us.
Q139Chair: Do you think, however, that you should be making it clear what sort of information and evidence you have taken, and from what sources? I understand that there have been cases where you refused to reveal that. It has not always given the impression of transparency.
Anne Seex: Yes, I did pick up on that. In my view, it would be a cardinal sin for anybody in our organisation to make a decision based on evidence and not say what that evidence was. Our routine practice is to make available to the person who has made the complaint the evidence that we rely on in our decision. Sometimes we cannot do that if the evidence involves third parties. For example, in antisocial behaviour complaints, we get records and diaries from an authority that involve other people in that neighbourhood. It would be wrong to disclose those, because it is personal and confidential information about third parties, but the investigator should give a summary of it and it should be clear what has been relied on in the decision. So the idea that we withhold evidence that we have relied on in our decisions is not one that finds any resonance with me at all.
Q140 Chair: Okay. I will come back to that in a second. There is this issue of trying to get consistency across the organisation, which I accept; you have lots of different investigators and, in the end, you are reporting on behalf of the ombudsman, so you have to get a consistency of view. Two other things have been said to us-you will appreciate that colleagues deal with cases on behalf of constituents, so they do pick these things up and have a word with us about them, too. We were referring earlier to cases taking a long time when they go to you to be looked at. We understand that you have to try to take that overview, but one thing that came back to us was not that you take an overview, but that the reports had been rewritten as usual by Anne Seex, which was a comment that one of my colleagues picked up on. It was said that so many reports get rewritten and you do not have the ability to trust the investigators to do their jobs. Is that a fair comment?
Anne Seex: I place a great deal of personal emphasis on trying to make our reports and statements as clear-in plain English and hitting the key points-as possible. So yes, if we are publishing a report, I have a great deal of personal involvement in that. It is a bit of six of one and half a dozen of the other. If people challenge a decision and I feel that we can do more to explain it-this happens with the assistant ombudsman as well-people will endeavour to give a clearer and better-reasoned explanation than perhaps may have been given in the first instance.
Q141 Simon Danczuk: The Government think you have time on your hands. They have decided, in the Open Public Services White Paper, that as well as doing what you already do, you are also going to have a role in upholding people’s rights to choice. How will you do that?
Dr Martin: We have been engaged in some initial discussions. The direction of policy is not a matter for us, but if the Government-or any Government of the day-wish to put duties on a local authority, or any democratic authority acting on their behalf, we will continue to fulfil our role within that framework. So if there are new administrative duties to ensure effective choice through commissioning and provision of services, then we stand ready to take on board any complaints of that nature against that statutory and regulatory framework. We would do it. In one sense, it is business as usual.
I think there are two other points about the open public services policy, if I may say so, that we are possibly thinking harder about. One is that the policy suggests that there will be more local democratic authorities of different types-perhaps town and parish councils, neighbourhood councils and the like-taking on the duties of the principal local authority. It seems to us that it is very important indeed that in this kind of landscape we ensure good public administration by all those bodies that are charged with commissioning or providing services. That would extend of course to individuals as well as bodies. So in those circumstances, where we are dealing with the duties of the principal local authority, again our legislation is fit for purpose-we can exercise our jurisdiction in relation to those new bodies-but, I am sure most people would agree, we need to make sure that there continues to be good public administration and that citizens are treated fairly by all those bodies charged with such duties.
The second point is that there will be-there already is, but we may expect to see greater-diversity of service providers, not just democratic authorities, but private, individual, voluntary ones, etc. In such case, we already have jurisdiction over the private, independent adult social care providers in relation to service failure and not just, as it were, maladministration so, again, we have experience of this but we expect to see more of it. It takes us further into that territory of private, independent bodies, and we are thinking about what we can learn from our initial experience of working with adult social care providers, as we see changes emerge as a result of the open public services policy.
Q142 Simon Danczuk: In terms of local authority performance-sorry if you have already answered this question-can you tell me which local authority is complained about most, and which local authority is complained about least?
Dr Martin: I do not have those figures in front of me, although I am aware that some figures were shared through a parliamentary question not too long ago. I think that what I can say is that it is de facto the case that the bigger authorities with the larger populations have more complaints coming to us. I am sure that the statistics will bear out that statement.
Q143 Simon Danczuk: But the figures are public-people can see them.
Dr Martin: Of course. Sorry, I just do not have a list of them to read to you.
Q144 Simon Danczuk: What would you do if a local authority was performing consistently poorly, in terms of handling complaints? What do you do?
Dr Martin: Perhaps I should also point out that we produce an annual review of each local authority, in which all the figures are made public and are on the website, etc. We will be putting those reviews together for July this year. What we do in the annual review is to point out if we have any concerns about how the authority is handling complaints. We also, in a more supportive mode, offer training-indeed, our annual review is an opportunity to say, "We think you could do with some." We will provide training and support.
We also produce publications. We want to make sure that we maximise the learning from all of our complaints and feed that back, particularly in the spirit of localism and supporting local authorities in their complaints handling. What we have done recently is started to produce a series of focused reports, which are quite short and sharp so they do not take very long to read and digest, which we hope is helpful to busy people in local authorities. The reports give quick pointers as to how the local authorities might be dealing better with specific points of public administration and complaint handling. Finally, when we deal with a complaint, if we see poor complaint handling per se, we will always comment on it and feed back to the authority.
Q145 Simon Danczuk: Finally, you presumably do a satisfaction survey of your customers. What percentage is satisfied or very satisfied with how you have handled their concerns and complaints?
Anne Seex: I think the last survey, a quantitative survey that was done in 2007, had about 26% satisfied with the outcome of their complaint.
Q146 Simon Danczuk: That you as an organisation handled.
Anne Seex: With the outcome.
Q147 Simon Danczuk: So three quarters were not satisfied with how you had handled their complaint.
Anne Seex: No, sorry, I was talking there about the outcome. What we know from the research is that it is almost impossible to extricate outcome from handling. We followed that quantitative research up with qualitative research because, in doing the survey, MORI had told us that it was very difficult for people who had got an outcome that they did not like or expect to separate that from comments on the organisation.
Q148 Simon Danczuk: So you’re not measuring satisfaction with the delivery of-
Anne Seex: In that survey, we asked about the politeness of staff, the helpfulness, the thoroughness, the time taken and the ease of understanding-the whole range of things.
Q149 Simon Danczuk: And that is a public document.
Anne Seex: That’s a published report that we regard very highly.
Q150 Simon Danczuk: Do you think that you need to do the survey again? How many years in the future do you intend to do it?
Anne Seex: Depending upon the resources, I would like to see us do them about once every three years and to supplement them with qualitative research. The difficulty about quantitative research, particularly when it is anonymous and we have got the particularities of dealing with complaints, is you don’t know whether somebody’s bad experience is them or us. And we need to know that. We need to be able to correlate people’s reporting of bad experiences with the actual practice that was applied to their complaint.
Q151 James Morris: There’s a thread coming through this discussion about the danger of your going into areas in which you have no expertise. Dr Martin, you were talking about you evaluating service failure in adult social care. How is that relevant to your core business, and what are the cross-overs between that and the responsibility of the Care Quality Commission? What expertise have you got to evaluate service failure in adult social care?
Dr Martin: That’s a very good question. First of all, for adult social care, we recruited new people to the organisation, so we had balanced teams. We had generalists and specialists who knew about the area in question. So we have specialist teams looking at adult social care and other areas. Both Anne and I are very committed to making sure that we get this issue of specialisms right, so that we reflect it in our organisation. But, we cannot reflect all specialisms in the organisation. It would not be possible to do that. In future, we need to be looking at the ways in which we work with specialists to support our work in much the same way as the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman does with clinical advice.
Q152 James Morris: What I’m getting at is whether there is a sense of some degree of strategic drift with your organisation and whether somehow you are picking up almost on an ad hoc basis some responsibilities as a result of some Government Department deciding that it will chuck something into the Local Government Ombudsman? Actually, you should be pushing back and saying, "No, that doesn’t fit within our core remit." Otherwise, you end up getting in a situation where you are commenting on service failure in adult social care, which is way beyond your capability or capacity to deliver. Therefore, disappointed expectations are increased.
Anne Seex: May I pick that up? Our role is to investigate complaints about injustice caused by the absence of an adult social care provider, so the process of investigation is the same wherever we are. We already dealt with complaints about adult social care, as arranged and provided by local authorities. Very often, the strategic role of the local authority in planning for services and arranging overall for meeting the needs in its district and the actual experience in a care home or in domiciliary care of a citizen is collected linearly. So it was not entirely new to us to be dealing with complaints about service failure in a care home or in domiciliary care; we were already doing that in the statutory sector.
There is an argument-or debate is probably a better way of putting it-about whether the regulator should deal with complaints or whether somebody separate should deal with them. My personal view on this has changed. Initially, I felt that it was probably better for the regulator to also be the complaint-handling body, because there was synergy in the roles. On further reflection, after a lot of discussion with ombudsmen in other countries who are also regulators, I think that that view was wrong and I have changed it. It is important to have a separation between the regulator and the ombudsman, so that you do not get cross-contamination from the regulator’s inspection review of a service provider, so colouring its ability properly to consider whether something has gone wrong.
Q153 James Morris: I have a final point. Is there not a trend generally, at the moment, that when a policy decision is taken by a local authority, a complaint might be generated and there is a semi-judicial process whereby you get yourself in a position of being asked to arbitrate on a policy decision that has been taken by a local authority? We have seen that with all kinds of judicial reviews happening around adult social care and other things. Is that something that concerns you?
Anne Seex: We are very clear. The legislation says that we may not question the merits of a decision that has been taken without maladministration, so we tend not to get involved in policy decisions. But there have been some decisions-Jane has dealt with one and I can talk to you about the one I dealt with. A disabled person came forward and said, "This decision to introduce charging for disabled persons’ parking has affected me directly. I can’t afford to do this. I can’t do my shopping in the hour allocated to me, and the decision was taken without proper reference to the impact on disabled people." We could have said, "Well, you could go to court for judicial review if you wanted to," but that would have seemed very harsh and unreasonable, so I examined the complaint. I was not interested in whether the council was right or wrong to introduce charges for disabled people’s parking; I was interested in whether it had considered all the things that by law it should have considered, and I found that it had not.
Q154 Chair: This has been a difficult period for both of you, but probably for the staff as well. Simon asked about the consumer satisfaction survey. Most Departments have also introduced a staff satisfaction survey-I think they all have, in fact. Have you got one? If you haven’t had one, what do you think would be found if you introduced one?
Anne Seex: There has not been one done in my five or six years as ombudsman.
Q155 Chair: Is it something that you might think about introducing?
Anne Seex: It would be good practice. Absolutely.
Q156 Chair: Presumably, there is, anyway, a grievance or complaints procedure in place for people who want to express concerns.
Dr Martin: Absolutely. Yes, indeed.
Q157 Chair: Finally, I remember that some time ago we looked at the ombudsman service. What seemed a very good idea-you haven’t mentioned it today-was that investigators would come together on a regular basis to talk through issues, so you would get the consistency of decision making that you talked about before. Does that still happen? Do you still try to work in that co-operative and collegiate way, and still have these investigator groups?
Dr Martin: Yes, in a whole number of different ways, we encourage investigatory teams to work very much as teams and to share experiences and support each other. In each of our offices-certainly in the Coventry office-I, with my deputy, host a monthly seminar for all our investigatory staff, to look at particular issues, and Anne does something similar.
A new departure, which Anne and I are committed to doing more of, is to hold case conferences on the adult social care new jurisdiction and the schools new jurisdiction. Because those are new areas of our work, we have been holding case conferences with the investigatory teams-with the team leaders-on a monthly basis. We have been doing that for quite some time, and we recognise its value. It works very well, and we need to spread it more widely across the organisation as we get our new arrangements in place.
Anne Seex: Just to add to that: we do it together, rather than separately.
Chair: So you are working together as well, which is always a good thing. Thank you both very much for coming. At this point, we will conclude our opening session.