The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has called on the Government to use planned social care reforms to require adult social care providers to tell people, if they are unhappy with the services they are receiving, how to complain not only to the providers themselves, but also how to escalate that complaint to the Ombudsman.
The call came as the Ombudsman published its Annual Review of Social Care Complaints, which relates largely to the period before COVID-19. The full impact the pandemic has had on those who rely on care services is not yet known, it said.
Fault was found in 69% of care complaints the LGO investigated during the year, 7% higher than across all its casework. That uphold rate rose to 71% for cases specifically about independently provided care.
Complaints about independently provided (or self-funded care) care have plateaued and continue to be "under-represented in our work", the review said.
Over the period the Ombudsman received 3,073 complaints and enquiries, but of those, only 430 were from people who arranged their care privately with independent providers.
The number of complaints and enquiries received by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman in 2019/20 was 3,073, almost the same as in 2018/19 when 3,070 were received.
According to the review, out of 687 recommendations made by the Ombudsman this year, just two were not implemented by care providers.
Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: "We're pleased with how the adult care sector has worked with us to make almost 600 improvements to its services last year, which were agreed in our investigations. This is 7% more than the previous year, and they include things such as policy changes and staff training.
"However, people who fund their own care are still underrepresented in the complaints we see, and the number has plateaued for the past couple of years. Each missed complaint is a lost opportunity to improve care services."
The Ombudsman added: "Mandatory signposting will also be better for businesses. The social care complaints system in England is not a voluntary scheme but the current level of engagement varies considerably. This is placing greater burdens on more conscientious providers while allowing weaker operators to avoid public accountability.
"This undermines fair competition and consumer choice. Instead, there should be a level playing field, where the rules are applied consistently – in the best interests of users and businesses."
Professor Martin Green, CEO of Care England, a representative body for care providers, said it was important that care users understand how to complain about the services they receive, and that providers use this feedback as an opportunity to identify and tackle the root causes of complaints.
He added: "Statutory signposting would help to develop a learning culture in social care, improve understanding of the role of the Ombudsman and drive service improvements."
Responding to the Ombudsman's review, Cllr Ian Hudspeth, Chairman of the Local Government Association's Community Wellbeing Board, said: "Councils and the care providers they commission have been working hard, especially during the pandemic, to support those who use and work in adult social care.
"This is despite continued funding and demand pressures, which existed prior to the coronavirus outbreak. It is good that providers continue to work with the Ombudsman in its investigations, to make improvements to their services.
"Any future reforms of adult social care must apply the lessons learned from coronavirus, as well as address the issues of fairness in how we pay for these vital services. These include people who fund their own care."
Cllr Hudspeth added: "Social care needs parity of esteem with the NHS, backed up by a genuine, long-term and sustainable funding settlement, which councils have been calling for long before the current crisis.
"Cross-party talks on the future of adult social care must start as soon as possible."