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Waverley Borough Council Committee System - Committee Document

Meeting of the Executive held on 02/10/2007
Ombudsman Investigations into Complaints made about Waverley's Services in 2006/07



APPENDIX M
Waverley Borough Council
Corporate Overview and scrutiny Committee
17TH september 2007
EXECUTIVE - 2ND OCTOBER 2007

Title:
OMBUDSMAN INVESTIGATIONS INTO COMPLAINTS MADE ABOUT WAVERLEY’S SERVICES IN 2006/07
[Wards Affected: All]

Summary and purpose:

This report addresses the issues raised in the Ombudsman’s annual letter to Waverley for the year 2006/07, and includes information about the types of complaint made to the Ombudsman about Waverley’s services over the past year, Waverley’s approach in responding to such complaints and the eventual outcomes. Waverley’s performance in terms of its own complaints procedure is the subject of a separate report. The Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee considered this report at its meeting on 17th September 2007.

Environmental implications:

There are no environmental implications arising from this report.

Social / community implications:

The investigation of complaints to the Ombudsman, and indeed complaints sent directly to the Council, provides the Council with an opportunity to review its arrangements for delivering services to all sections of the community. The investigation of complaints can highlight areas where improvements or changes to procedures need to be made to the benefit of the Council’s customers.

E-Government implications:

The majority of the Local Government Ombudsman’s communications with Councils are now undertaken electronically. These arrangements have been in place since January 2007 and have helped to reduce delay in dealing with complaints, which is one of the measures used by the Ombudsman to assess Councils’ performance in responding to his initial enquiries. This issue is addressed in the body of the report.

Resource and legal implications:

There are no resource or legal implications arising from this report.

Introduction

1. The Local Government Ombudsman’s Annual Letter for 2006/07 is attached at Annexe 1, but without the attachments because all the statistical information has been provided in the body of this report. This report comments on the various issues raised in the Ombudsman’s letter, and provides Members with an overview of the complaints referred to Waverley by the Ombudsman over the past year.

2. To assist those Members who are unfamiliar with the role of the Ombudsman, attached as Annexe 2 is a summary of the remit, work processes and powers of the Ombudsman.

Nature and volume of complaints received by the Ombudsman about Waverley’s services 3. The following table sets out the number of complaints received by the Ombudsman, by subject, since 2002/03. The high number of complaints received about the Planning service reflects the situation nationally in respect of district councils.
*Included 32 complaints about East Street.

Waverley’s approach in dealing with Ombudsman’s enquiries

4. Dealing with Ombudsman enquiries can be time-consuming since the information often has to be obtained from various sources. The Council’s Corporate Complaints Officer undertakes both the investigation and the preparation of a response to all Ombudsman complaints. It is considered important to provide as comprehensive a response as possible to these initial enquiries since this not only gives the Ombudsman confidence in the Council’s management of complaints, but in most cases also avoids the need for further correspondence.

5. Working relations with the Ombudsman’s office are good, and on several occasions, the Ombudsman’s Investigators have expressed their appreciation of the detailed responses provided by the Council to initial enquiries.

Timescales in dealing with the Ombudsman’s enquiries

6. Set out below are two tables, the first giving the average local authority response times in 2006/07 and the second setting out Waverley’s response times in 2006/07 and in the four previous years.
Type of authority<= 28 days
%
29-35 days
%
>= 36 days
%
District Councils49.4 (53.2)23.4 (25.3)27.2 (21.5)
Unitary Authorities28.2 (41.3)37.0 (34.8)34.8 (23.9)
Metropolitan Authorities36.1 (41.7)47.2 (30.5)16.7 (27.8)
County Councils44.4 (55.9)32.4 (26.5)23.5 (17.6)
London Boroughs36.4 (39.4)33.3 (39.4)30.3 (21.2)


(ii) Waverley’s response times for the period 2002/03 to 2006/07

Year No of first
enquiries
Average number of
days to respond
2006/071541.3
2005/06473.3
2004/051050.8
2003/041251.7
2002/03755.7
7. In his annual letter for 2006/07 the Ombudsman has acknowledged that while the average number of days that Waverley took to respond to his initial enquiries in 2006/07 is still well outside the target of 28 days, this nevertheless is a very significant improvement on the year before. 8. The Ombudsman has also acknowledged that the Council is committed to making further efforts to achieve an average response time that complies with his target of 28 days, and indeed officers are confident that this will be achieved this year, bearing in mind that to date the average response time for the five Ombudsman complaints received in 2007/08 is 32.2 days. It is also worth noting that while Waverley’s response times have improved, the average response times for district councils nationally have deteriorated slightly in 2006/07. Outcome of complaints made about Waverley’s services in 2006/07 9. There have been no findings of maladministration or injustice in respect of complaints made about Waverley in the past fifteen years. Details of the determinations made over the past five years are set out in the following table.

YearMI* repsLS*M* repsNM* repsNo* malOmb* discOutside jurisdicPremature complaintsTotal excl prematureTotal
2006/0701000441042832
2005/06030063251419
2004/05050037**4374956
2003/040500120151823
2002/03050026241519
10. Detailed information on the settlements reached in 2006/076 is set out in Annexe 4. As will be seen from the Ombudsman’s letter, ten local settlements were agreed with the Ombudsman which included a total of 2,325 being paid in compensation to complainants. 56% of the complaints about Waverley’s services that were not outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction or premature, resulted in a local settlement being made with the complainant, a figure that is double the national average of 27.7%. 11. While the Ombudsman is pleased that the Council has been willing to agree settlements of complaints, he is concerned that the number that he has found to be justified appears to be substantially above the norm. A common theme running through the majority of the complaints that resulted in a local settlement, is delay on the part of the Council to keep complainants informed of developments regarding the investigation of their complaints. It may be that Members believe that this is an issue that needs to be addressed by all departments within the Council.

12. The Council has sought to address the problems in internal communication identified by the Ombudsman in respect of the three complaints about noise nuisance at the former Dunsfold Aerodrome, by establishing an interdepartmental officer group that keeps under review all developments at the site. This group has been in existence for just over a year. As far as external communication is concerned, officers have been reminded of the need to keep complainants more closely informed of developments in relation to planning enforcement cases, although it has to be said that the pressures of work within the Enforcement Team are such that at times this might be difficult to achieve.

13. With regard to the Ombudsman’s statement that nationally 28% of all complaints are referred back to a council as premature whereas the comparable figure for Waverley is just 12%, this could be seen as an indication that the Council is less able to settle complaints at an earlier stage than other councils. Alternatively it could be argued that this is an indication that the Council’s procedure perhaps more accessible to complainants. However, as acknowledged by the Ombudsman, the numbers are low and the percentages are therefore easily distorted.

Comments from the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee

14. The Committee recognised the improvements achieved by the Council in terms of the time taken to respond to the Ombudsman’s enquiries in 2006/07. Members identified that a common theme of complaints to the Ombudsman was a delay on the part of the Council in keeping complainants informed of all developments regarding their complaints, and recommended that this was an issue that needed to be addressed as part of the forthcoming management review of complaints handling.

15. Members also noted that such delays, particularly in the area of Planning enforcement, were a common feature in the local settlements made with complainants, and agreed that, given the high profile of planning and development in the borough, this should be kept under review.

16. It was also recognised that Waverley’s responses to the Ombudsman were always much fuller and more detailed than those of other authorities, and consequently appreciated by the Investigators.

Conclusion

17. It is hoped that Members will be encouraged to note that there has been a significant improvement in the timing of the Council’s responses to the Ombudsman’s initial enquiries, and that further improvements have been made this year. Members may wish to consider, however, what steps could be taken to address the delay in keeping complainants informed of progress in the investigation of their complaints, which appears to have been a significant factor in the majority of local settlements made in 2006/07.

Recommendation

It is recommended that

2. the report be noted.

Background Papers (CEx)

Local Government Ombudsman’s Annual Letter to Waverley for 2006/07 dated 20 June 2007.

CONTACT OFFICERS:

Name: Mrs Sue Petzold Telephone: 01483 523202.
E-mail: spetzold@waverley.gov.uk

Mr Paul Wenham Telephone: 01483 523238
E-mail: pwenham@waverley.gov.uk


Comms/O&S1/2007-08/019
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