Complainants as well as sanctioned councillors should be given the right to ask the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) to review a council’s handling of alleged breaches of its code of conduct, the Ombudsman, Michael King, has said.
Speaking to a session of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee this week, Mr King told MPs that the service stood "ready to deliver" a route of appeal over council code of conduct decisions, as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) in 2019.
In its Local Government Ethical Standards report, issued in 2019, the CSPL recommended that local authorities should be given the power to suspend councillors without allowances for up to six months.
Councillors including parish councillors found to be at fault and who have had a sanction imposed on them would be given the right to appeal to the Ombudsman, who in turn would have the power to investigate allegations of code breaches on appeal. Its decision should be binding, the CSPL recommended.
Mr King told the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee that the role of reviewing whether the local process was handled property was one “we absolutely stand ready to deliver, should the Government wish to implement those recommendations.
“But we have gone one step further. In conversation with people in the sector, what people have said to us is, ‘Is that not a bid one sided?’ that where somebody has made a complaint about a councillor, the councillor has got a right of appeal to the Ombudsman but the person who has made the complaint hasn’t if they have got a concern about how the local process was run."
Mr King added: "So what we're saying is that absolutely we don't want to recreate the Standards Board. Absolutely, we don't want to usurp the role of the monitoring officer and of local standards committees in dealing locally with standards issues. We think, absolutely they should be dealt at first instance by local processes.
"What we are saying is that where those local processes have failed to get a satisfactory resolution, we think we could perhaps provide a helpful role in giving that independent assessment of those complaints to make sure that the local processes happened properly - but also to give some finality to what we all know can be quite toxic long-running dispute sometimes."
He said: “If the local authority or the complainant or the councillor was able to take that outside the local process and bring it to us, we think we could probably give closure to some very long-running and damaging issues that can occur in that standards space.
“So effectively what we are saying is that we think we can help. Whatever we do, though, we are not trying to do something separate from the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recommendations. What we are trying to do is advise on how we think we can help if there are changes to be made around councillor conduct and complaints.”
The Government is yet to formally respond to the Local Government Ethical Standards report, despite the urgings of the CSLP and organisations such as Lawyers in Local Government.
Mr King also raised with the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee concerns about overall council complaints handling, which he said were under-resourced in some authorities. He suggested that, in some authorities, "the status and importance of listening to public concerns has become marginalised".
He added that he had seen an erosion of the culture he saw in the 1980s and 90s, a time when listening to public concerns was "absolutely fundamental to the way in which local authorities worked".
At some local authorities, complaint handling is seen as a nice-to-have customer service issue and has been “pushed to the margins”, he said.
"What we have seen through Covid is that those areas of local authorities that were already under pressure including complaint handling are the ones that haven’t fared very well,” Mr King added.
Some councils had "completely abandoned the children's statutory complaints process when there was no lawful basis to do so, simply because it was just too onerous for them to administer during the crisis," the Ombudsman claimed.
Mr King said: “These things aren’t new, they weren’t created by Covid but there are some authorities that have simply taken their eye off the ball in terms of complaint handling.”
He added, however, that there were some authorities who do complaint handling well, who are exemplars of learning from complaints. “They have put it at the heart of their corporate governance and they see it as a way of getting free intelligence to improve their services.”
Later, he noted that some combined authorities are failing to point citizens who may have complaints to his service due to a "very patchy understanding" amongst them as to whether they fall under the Ombudsman's jurisdiction.
He cited Greater Manchester as a combined authority that has a "clear" page showing the complaints process which refers complainants, if they are not satisfied, to the LGSCO. But "if you look just over the road in Liverpool," there is no obvious complaints process for the public to follow and "despite them being in our jurisdiction, legally, there's absolutely no reference to us.”
Mr King said: “The upshot of that is we get complaints about Greater Manchester services; We get no complaints whatsoever about combined authority services in Liverpool.”
As a result, people are being "disenfranchised by a lack of understanding and a lack of direction in the process".
The Ombudsman also told MPs during the session that he anticipated a significant increase in homelessness complaints as protections against rough sleeping introduced during the pandemic are lifted, at a time where the LGCSO is making increased findings of fault (now in excess of 80% of all homelessness cases).
Meanwhile, when asked about his support for the formation of a single public services ombudsman in England, Mr King said “in principle we still believe that it would be better to have [one]”.
The Government brought forward a draft bill in 2016 to propose a single service in England, but it recently confirmed that the bill had been abandoned.
As a result, Mr King said the Ombudsman service was focusing on pursuing "realistic" and "deliverable" changes to its jurisdiction "so that as long we carry on as a separate entity, we're doing that and in a way where we can meet contemporary expectations and modern standards".
He added: "Our Triennial Review isn't a replacement for the idea of a Public Service Ombudsman but it is saying that it appears that in the next three years that isn't going to happen, so let's make the pragmatic and deliverable changes we need to make in the meantime."