The highest number of complaints received by the Local Government Ombudsman in the last year were about education and children’s services, the annual report has revealed.
Furthermore, the uphold rate increased across all categories of complaint, except Environmental Services, and the highest proportion of complaints upheld were about Education and Children’s Services (77%).
“We published 40 public interest reports during the year. These reports allow us to share the lessons from the cases we investigate, as well as holding authorities to account. While the breadth of our casework is represented, complaints about Education and Children’s Services continue to dominate, being the subject matter in two fifths of our reports,” said Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.
The report highlights the ‘widening cracks’ in local government complaint handling with a greater proportion of investigations – 67% - being upheld than ever before. This continues an upward trend since the Ombudsman started publishing its uphold rate.
The ombudsman was closed between March and June 2020 due to the first COVID-19 lockdown, and has therefore registered fewer complaints than recent years. However, the Ombudsman still received 11,830 complaints and enquiries from members of the public.
The investigations undertaken over the past year have led to 3,104 recommendations to put things right for individuals.
Furthermore, there were 1,488 recommendations for councils to improve their services for others – such as revising procedures and training staff. This is a higher proportion of the total number of recommendations than previous years, and suggests Ombudsman investigations are increasingly finding systemic problems rather than one-off mistakes with local government services.
Significantly, the Ombudsman is still seeing high levels of compliance with its recommendations, with councils carrying out those recommendations in 99.5% of cases.
Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “We’ve been issuing our annual reviews for the past seven years now and, while every year has seen its challenges, this year seems to have been the most difficult for local authorities.
“While the way local authorities dealt with the pressures of COVID-19 is still being played out in our casework, early indications suggest it is only widening the cracks that were already there, and has deepened our concerns about the status of complaints services within councils. These concerns are not new and cannot be wholly attributed to the trials of the pandemic.
“I am concerned about the general erosion to the visibility, capacity, and status of complaint functions within councils.
“Listening to public complaints is an essential part of a well-run and properly accountable local authority, committed to public engagement, learning, and improvement. I know the best councils still understand this and put local democracy and good complaints handling at the forefront of their services,” he concluded.