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Waverley Borough Council Committee System - Committee Document

Meeting of the Executive held on 02/10/2007
Policy on Dealing with Complaints




7
ANNEXE 1

Waverley Borough Council

Policy on dealing with complaints

Page

Aims of Waverley’s corporate complaints procedure 2

Council’s standards in dealing with complaints 2

Definition of a complaint 3

Types of complaint and procedures 3

Outcomes 5

Remedies 5

Role of Service Complaints Officers 5

Role of Corporate Complaints Officer 6

Role of other Officers of the Council 6

Role of Corporate Management Team 6

Role of Elected Members 7






Aims of Waverley's Corporate Complaints Procedure

The aims of Waverley's corporate complaints procedure are as follows:

to encourage customers to inform the Council if its services fall short of promised standards;

to provide customers with a clear and comprehensive response as quickly and effectively as possible;

to resolve the cause of the complaint wherever possible following a full and impartial investigation;

to offer customers an apology and/or appropriate redress where complaints are found to be justified

to learn from complaints so that services can be improved.

The Council’s standards

The Council has a short complaints procedure, which in accordance with recommendations made by the Local Government Ombudsman, has just three stages. These are set out later in this document.

A complaint may be received by letter, on the complaints leaflet (which is available at all the Council's offices and can be downloaded from the Council's website), via e mail, or verbally. If the complaint is received verbally, eg by telephone, the customer will be encouraged to put their concerns in writing, especially if the complaint involves a serious allegation about an officer, or council activity. A complaint which may give rise to an insurance claim should be put in writing so that it can be passed on to the Council's insurers.

Written complaints – whether in the form of a letter, on the complaints form or by e mail - will be acknowledged within 3 working days of their receipt.

All written complaints, whether addressed direct to the service Departments or to the Chief Executive , will be responded to in full within 15 working days, or if it is not possible to comply with this timescale due to the complexity of the matter raised, a progress report will be sent to the complainant.

Details of all complaints made by telephone, or in person, will be recorded and a response provided by the relevant member of staff responsible for the service, within 3 working days and preferably sooner.

The Service Directors, in consultation with the Director of Finance, are able to make limited payments to the customer by way of compensation, but 'without prejudice' under Section 92 of the Local Government Act 2000. Such payments may be up to the maximum amount specified in the Council’s financial regulations`. Payments above this amount will be authorised by the Corporate Management Team.


Definition of a complaint

A complaint is defined as:

'An expression of dissatisfaction about the standard of service, actions, or lack of action by staff, particularly where a problem has not been remedied to the satisfaction of the customer.'

However, it is accepted that complaints do not always arrive 'neatly packaged' or as a direct and clearly definable letter of complaint, and that it is sometimes difficult to decide whether a customer is making a complaint or simply requesting a service or requesting an explanation of a decision. The following examples illustrate the distinction to be made.

Example 1

'I disagree with the amount of Housing Benefit I have been awarded because………' is not a complaint – but a further explanation of how benefit was awarded should be supplied.

But

'I believe that your officers have been biased against my application for Housing Benefit' is a complaint.

Example 2

'I disagree with your reasons for refusing my planning application' is not a complaint, but a further explanation of why the decision was made should be supplied, and the applicant reminded of their right to appeal to the Secretary of State.

'I think that the Council has behaved in an unprofessional way in dealing with my planning application' is a complaint.

Officers dealing with complaints will be made aware of the distinction that needs to be made between a complaint and a request for a service of for further information regarding an action taken by the Council.

Types of complaint

Informal complaints

The Council's complaints leaflet recommends that, as a first step, customers who feel that they wish to complain about the Council's actions should raise their concerns informally with a member of staff in the responsible department who may be able to solve the problem. Contact telephone numbers are provided in the complaints leaflet.

All complaints and enquiries received either by telephone or in person will be logged on the Council's complaints system.

Formal complaints

If the customer is unhappy with the outcome of their informal approach to the Council they can make a formal complaint as set out below. There are three stages in the formal complaints procedure.

Stage 1

All formal complaints received by departments will be drawn to the attention of the Service Complaints Officer who is responsible for ensuring that the complaint is acknowledged within 3 working days and for the investigation of the complaint. A full response should be sent to the complainant within 15 working days. The Service Complaints Officer will keep the Director of the Service fully informed of the progress of complaints.

In cases where a customer writes directly to the Chief Executive, the letter will be acknowledged by the Corporate Complaints Officer and passed to the Director of the relevant Service who will arrange for the complaint to be investigated under Stage 1 by a senior officer who has not any prior involvement in the matter.

Stage 2

If a customer is not satisfied with the explanations or the remedy offered following investigation at Stage 1 they can write to the Chief Executive, who will arrange for the complaint to be further investigated by the Corporate Complaints Officer. All stage 2 complaints will be responded to within 15 working days, or in the case of very complex matters where it is not possible to comply with this deadline, a progress report will be sent to the complainant.

Stage 2 provides for the further investigation of a complaint that is independent of the service and ensures an objective and unbiased approach in resolving the complaint.

The investigation of a complaint at Stage 2 is likely to involve more extensive investigations and interviews with relevant officers.

In cases where a serious complaint has been made about a member of staff, the complaint handling process will bypass Stage 1 and move directly to Stage 2.

As with Stage 1, the complaint will be acknowledged within 3 working days and within 15 working days the customer will be provided with either a full explanation and details of how the situation will be resolved, or in more complex cases, a progress report.

Stage 3

In the event that a customer remains dissatisfied with the response received from the Chief Executive under Stage 2, they have the right to take their complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman.

There will be occasions when the Ombudsman receives a complaint that has not been previously raised with the Council, and where the Council has not had an opportunity to comment on the matter or suggest a means of resolving the problem. In these circumstances the Ombudsman will usually refer the complainant back to the Council to seek resolution at local level. Such complaints will normally be referred to Stage 1, except in the case of the most serious allegations which will be investigated under Stage 2.


Outcomes

A complaint will have three possible outcomes:

The complaint is upheld – in the complainant’s favour
The complaint is not upheld – in the Council’s favour
The complaint is partially upheld – the main aspect of the complaint is not upheld, but some associated aspects of the complaint are upheld.

Remedies

In cases where the complaint is upheld or partially upheld there needs to be a remedy which is appropriate to the complaint. In considering the remedy that might be offered to the complainant, the Council will take into account the advice of the Local Government Ombudsman that ‘as far as possible the complainant should be put in a position he or she would have been in had things not gone wrong.’ The complainant will be consulted to find out their wishes.

While each case will be considered on its own merits, as far as possible broadly similar complaints, if justified, will receive broadly comparable remedies.

Detailed guidance on remedies is set out in the Council’s document on the procedures to be following in dealing with complaints.

Role of the Service Complaints Officers

Each Service Director will identify an officer to deal with complaints handling. This may be the Director him/herself, or someone nominated by them. The officer identified will be of a senior level, with experience of the operations of the service. The role of ‘Service Complaints Officer’ will therefore be part of that senior officer’s job description.

Responsibility for dealing with service complaints will remain that of the Director of the Service for Stage 1 complaints.

The Service Complaints Officer will:

q Investigate the complaint at Stage 1
q Look at a complaint from a service point of view
q Communicate with the customer directly, including responding to correspondence
q Ensure that the Council’s response times are adhered to
q Ensure that the Datix database is maintained.

Each Service Complaints Officer will be supported by a Service Complaints Administrator who will responsible for the management of the Datix Complaints and Enquires database.


Role of the Corporate Complaints Officer

The role of Corporate Complaints Officer will be to:

q Coordinate information and statistics on Stage 1 and Stage 2 complaints to prepare performance statistics for the Corporate Management Team and Council committees
q Be the central reference point for receiving complaints made using the ‘complaints leaflet’ and the complaints e mail address
q Investigate all Stage 2 complaints and complaints referred to the Council by the Local Government Ombudsman and prepare responses for the Director of Finance who has overall responsibility for complaints handling in Waverley
q Be the Council’s ‘Link Officer’ with the Ombudsman
q Record and investigate complaints of a racial nature
q Maintain and update the Council’s Complaints Procedure as appropriate
q Maintain and update the Council’s Complaints Leaflet as appropriate.

Role of other Officers of the Council in the Complaints Procedure

Monitoring Officer

The Council’s Monitoring Officer will conduct investigations into matters referred by the Ethical Standards Board on issues concerning Members and make reports or recommendations in respect of these to the Council’s Standards Committee.

Director of Finance

The Director of Finance must be kept fully informed of any complaints which may give rise to an insurance claim and/or possible liability issues.

The Director of Finance must be consulted if a Head of Service wishes to make a payment to the customer by way of compensation.

Head of Legal Services

The Solicitor to the Council must be consulted about any complaints which, it is thought, may give rise to legal action.

Role of the Corporate Management Team

The Corporate Management Team will have overall responsibility for the management of the Council’s complaints system and procedures, and for ensuring that:

q Through the Service Directors, Stage 1 complaints are resolved as appropriate

q That Stage 2 complaints are resolved satisfactorily

q That Ombudsman complaints are resolved as appropriate and are reported to the Council’s Executive and Corporate Overview and Committee.


Role of Elected Members

Complainants sometimes approach Councillors at different stages of the complaints process. Ideally, Councillors should advise and encourage complainants to use the complaints system, and should only become directly involved when the system appears not to be working satisfactorily.

In practice, if Councillors wish to log complaints directly or to pursue the progress of particular complaints, they should contact the Director of the relevant service. In such cases, Councillors should be kept informed of all subsequent developments.





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Waverley Borough Council

Procedures for dealing with complaints

Page

Introduction 2
Arrangements for logging complaints 2

Acknowledgement of complaints 3

Arrangements for preparing responses to complaints 2

Outcome of complaints 4

Remedies 4

Compensation 4

Legal Action 5

Monitoring and reporting on complaints received by Waverley 6


Annex A

General principles to be followed in the investigation of complaints 7

Points to bear in mind when preparing a response to complaints received 7
in writing

Points to bear in mind when responding to complaints received by 8
telephone or in person

Introduction

The following notes have been prepared for the guidance of all staff who deal with complaints about Waverley’s services. These notes should be read in conjunction with the Council’s policy on handling complaints.


1. Arrangements for logging complaints All complaints concerning the Council’s services should be logged on the Datix database. These include complaints received by e-mail and over the telephone. The following information is recorded for complaints received on the formal complaints form, by letter, by email, over the telephone or in person: Source/type of complaint/addressee i.e. Member’s enquiry, MP’s letter, Ombudsman, formal complaint form, letter to Chief Executive, letter to Service Director, letter to specified member of staff (name), addressee not specified.
Status of complaint, ie informal, stage 1, stage 2 or Ombudsman
Name of complainant
Address of complainant
Date complaint letter received
Service to which complaint relates
Subject of complaint. The database provides a list of subjects and sub-subjects to assist analysis of causes of complaints.
Identity of staff member to whom complaint has been referred and date of referral
Date response due back
Date response received
Outcome e.g. complaint upheld, complaint partly upheld, complaint not upheld. 2. Acknowledgement of complaints

The appropriate administrative officer will acknowledge all written complaints in writing within 3 working days of receipt of the complaint. This acknowledgement will confirm who the complaint has been passed to, the contact number of the officer who will be dealing with the matter, and the date by when the complainant can expect to receive a full reply (which should be within 15 working days of receipt of their letter). 3. Arrangements for preparing responses to complaints

3.1 Preparation of responses to complaints received in writing or by email Informal complaints will be passed to the appropriate officer for investigation and that officer should respond directly to the complainant within 15 working days of the receipt of the complainant’s letter by the Department. The officer should also ensure that the computer record is completed. This will include attaching a copy of their response to the Datix database.

Stage 1 complaints should be investigated by a senior officer in the department who has not had any previous involvement in the complaint. That officer will send a response to the complainant within 15 working days of the date on which the complaint was received by the Council, and a copy of the response should be sent electronically to the Departmental Complaints Officer so that it can be attached to the Datix database.

Stage 2 complaints are investigated by the Corporate Complaints Officer in the Chief Executive’s office. The staff member to whom the complaint has been referred should produce comments on the issues raised by the complainant, and e-mail these to the Corporate Complaints Officer within 10 working days of the date on which the letter was received in the Department. The Corporate Complaints Officer will then prepare a response to the complainant for the consideration of the Director of Finance who has overall responsibility for complaints handling within Waverley. 3.2 Late responses:

Occasionally, it may not be possible to complete all the necessary investigations in time for a full reply to be sent to the complainant within the required timescale. In these circumstances, it is essential that the staff member to whom the complaint has been referred prepares an interim reply explaining the reason for the delay.

3.3 Responses relating to more than one service area

It is the responsibility of the staff member to whom the complaint has been referred, to liaise directly with the staff in another service area, if the complaint covers more than one issue. Even if there is input from another service area, the staff member to whom the complaint has been referred will need to take responsibility for the overall response, adhere to the overall timescale and other requirements set out in paragraph 1.3 above.

3.4 Verbal Responses made to complaints received by telephone or face-to-face

Wherever possible, complaints made by phone or in person should be investigated and responded to immediately – while the caller is still on the line or present. However, if the relevant officer is not available, or further enquiries are needed, it may not be possible to provide an immediate response. In these circumstances, if the complainant wishes a telephone response they should be informed of the name of the member of staff dealing with the complaint, their phone number and when they will call back which should normally be within 3 working days.

(N.B. A common cause of written complaints is the failure of staff to return phone calls. It is therefore essential that complainants are kept informed of progress even if it is not possible to provide them with a full response within the required timescale.)

3.5 Written responses to complaints made by telephone or face to face

If the complainant asks for a written response this should be acknowledged in writing (within 3 working days) with a contact name, phone number and the timescale for a full response (which should be within 15 working days).


3.6 Complaints about services provided by Surrey County Council

If a complaint is received about a service that is provided by Surrey County Council, for example a highways problem, officers should not just say that it is a County Council matter but should find out who is responsible at the County Council for the service and forward the complaint on to them, telling the customer what has been done.

4. General principles to be followed in the investigation of complaints

Annexe A to this document provides advice on the general principles to be followed in the investigation of complaints and the preparation of responses.

5. Outcome of complaints

There are three possible outcomes:

Complaint upheld – in the complainant’s favour
Complaint not upheld – in the Council’s favour
Complaint partly upheld – where the main aspect of the complaint is not upheld but associated issues are

6. Remedies

Where the complaint is upheld or partly upheld there needs to be a remedy. This needs to be appropriate to the complaint. It is good practice to consult with the complainant to find out their wishes. The Local Government Ombudsman advises that: ‘As far as possible the complainant should be put in the position he or she would have been in had things not gone wrong.’

Remedies may include:

an apology
an explanation:
of what went wrong
of policy/procedures
of the way the matter was handled
remedial action
a commitment to review processes to avoid the same thing happening again
a change in working practices
a review of policy/procedures
a face-to-face discussion/interview
feedback to complainant on how their complaint has been used to improve/change the service
compensation, which may not always be monetary

N.B. No admission of legal liability should be made without first seeking the advice of Waverley’s Insurance Officer and Legal Officers. (See also paragraphs below).


7. Compensation

7.1 Grounds:

There may be circumstances when a customer would have grounds for claiming limited compensation if there is evidence that:

the Council failed to do something or did something wrong,
the error or omission amounted to negligence or a failure to meet a legal obligation to the complainant, and
the complainant suffered financial loss, additional expense or inconvenience as a result. 7.2 Liability:

Care should be taken not to admit any liability on behalf of the Council when investigating a complaint that could involve a claim for compensation. It is good practice to empathise with a complainant but this should not extend to admitting responsibility before the investigation is completed. It is important to identify if liability lies elsewhere e.g. with a contractor and whether any part of the claim for compensation may not be covered by the Council’s insurance. Legal/insurance advice should be sought in these circumstances.

7.3 Amount

Compensation may not necessarily be monetary. However, it is good practice to ask the complainant to itemise their claim and put a price against each part of it where they are alleging a financial loss, additional expense or inconvenience as a result of the Council’s error or omission. This assists with the investigation of the complaint and makes it easier to arrive at a suitable figure if the complaint is upheld. In some circumstances, e.g. repairs covered by the Right to Repair not carried out within set time limits, the amount of compensation payable is laid down in Regulations.

7.3 Authorisation

All compensation payments must be authorised by the Service’s Director in consultation with the Director of Finance. (See also the section on The Council’s Standards in the policy document).


7.4 Offering compensation:

Any letter making an offer of compensation should be cleared by the Solicitor to the Council or other Legal Officer and, if appropriate, the Insurance Officer before being sent to the complainant. Where compensation is being offered, the letter should include the statement that ‘the offer/award of compensation is not an admission of liability by the Council and is being made in full and final settlement’ of the complaint. This means that if the offer is accepted the matter is effectively closed.


8. Legal action

The customer may have the option of taking action through the courts in some circumstances e.g. if the Council has failed to carry out a housing repair. Where legal action is initiated while a complaint is being investigated, legal advice should be obtained from the Solicitor to the Council. In these circumstances, it is good practice to carry on investigating the complaint and, in some situations, with the advice of the Solicitor to the Council to try to reach a settlement with the complainant. Once legal action commences, no correspondence should proceed without the knowledge of, and advice from the Legal Section.

9. Monitoring, analysing and reporting complaints

Information gathered from monitoring and analysing the nature of complaints and response times will be used to identify necessary service improvements. Reporting arrangements are as follows: (a) Written complaints submitted on the complaints form, by letter or by e-mail: An analysis of written complaints by Service section and reason as well as responses within target timescales will be carried out by the Corporate Complaints Officer and will be reported to the Corporate Management Team quarterly. (b) Report for Members: An analysis of all complaints by Service section and reason will be prepared by the Corporate Complaints Officer and presented to the relevant Overview and Scrutiny Committee and to the Executive annually, together with an analysis of the quality of complaints handling in Waverley.

Annexe A

1. General Principles to be followed in the investigation of complaints

How a complaint is received should not make a difference to how it is investigated, although a written complaint is likely to include more detailed information. Some, or all of the following steps, will need to be taken:

Establish as precisely as possible what issues are being raised by the complainant and the outcome being sought e.g. apology, compensation etc
Research relevant legislation, policy, procedures
Establish chronology of events i.e. who did what and when
Consult other members of staff as necessary
Seek legal or insurance advice if necessary

2. Points to bear in mind when preparing a response to complaints received in writing

2.1 Tone and style

Written responses to complainants should be professional but customer friendly. It is important to remember that most complainants will not be familiar with how the Council works and services interact. Each letter (or e-mail) should aim to make the complainant appreciate that their complaint has been taken seriously.

2.2 General context

Replies should: set the context by re-iterating the nature of the complaint.
answer all the points of concern raised by the complainant.
set out briefly, but clearly, any legislation, policy, procedures and good practice issues relevant to the complaint, enclosing any supporting documents if necessary.
explain any recommendations and remedies arising from the complaint.
use Plain English, avoiding jargon, technical terms and uncommon abbreviations as much as possible.
avoid very long paragraphs or sentences so that statements are concise and clear.

2.3 Apologising

An apology should always be given even if the complaint has not been upheld e.g. ‘I am sorry that you have felt the need to complain to the Council’. But legal liability should not be admitted nor, without legal advice, should there be an admission that the Council was wrong (see paragraphs .

Officers should not use phrases such as ‘I am sorry for the stress we have caused you’ but rather ‘I am sorry for the upset this matter has caused you.’

3. Points to bear in mind when responding to complaints made by telephone or in person

Many formal complaints begin as complaints made by telephone or in person. Every effort should therefore be made to resolve complaints made by phone or in person by:

actively listening to what the complainant is saying to show the complaint is being taken seriously and providing verbal encouragement e.g. ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘I see’.
not interrupting and allowing the complainant to air their grievance.
asking open questions to gain information and get to the root of the problem e.g. how, when, what.
answering questions as fully as possible and if the answer is not known, promising to find out and call them (back) or write if they prefer with a deadline by when this will be done.
providing the member of staff’s name who is dealing with the complaint and using the complainant’s name (if provided).
apologizing that they felt the need to complain even if it appears the Council is not in the wrong – the complainant’s perception may be that it is.
not blaming the ‘system’ or any other service area – many customers make no distinction between different parts of the Council.
avoiding reaching any conclusion without all the relevant information.

But remember that the Council does have a Policy on Dignity and Respect at Work, and that officers should not be subjected to unreasonable behaviour.




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