The Local Government Ombudsman: neither independent nor impartial

My experience of dealing with the Local Government Ombudsman has not been a very good one. The LGO is supposed to be an impartial service; the last resort when a local authority’s complaints procedure has been exhausted. But Nowhere Towers has uncovered numerous cases where the LGO has failed to act or has taken the council’s word over the complainant. In most cases, the council officers in question have lied to the LGO and in some cases, former local government officers who work for the LGO have a conflict of interest that compromises their ability to make impartial and independent adjudications.

The LGO’s website says,

The Local Government Ombudsman looks at complaints about councils and some other authorities and organisations, including education admissions appeal panels and adult social care providers (such as care homes and home care providers). It is a free service. Our job is to investigate complaints in a fair and independent way – we do not take sides.

“We do not take sides”, it tells us. Hold that thought, while we take a closer look at the LGO.

First, let’s have a look at what it says on their key facts page.

  • There are currently two Local Government Ombudsmen in England.
  • We make our decisions independently of all government departments, bodies we investigate and politicians.
  • We examine complaints without taking sides. We are not consumer champions.
  • We are appointed by Her Majesty the Queen.
  • We have the same powers as the High Court to obtain information and documents.
  • Our decisions are final and cannot be appealed. However, you can challenge them in the High Court if you think our reasoning has a legal flaw.
  • We do not have to investigate every complaint received, even if we have the power to do so. For example, we may decide not to investigate if we think the problem you mention would have affected you only slightly.
  • We are committed to providing a fair service and spending public money effectively.
  • We do not charge for using our service.
  • When we find that a body we have investigated has done something wrong, we may recommend how it should put it right. Although we cannot make bodies do what we recommend, they are almost always willing to act on what we say.

They tell us, “Our decisions are final and cannot be appealed. However, you can challenge them in the High Court if you think our reasoning has a legal flaw”. So even if their decision was compromised and it is demonstrated to be so, there is no chance of an appeal? That seems a little unfair.

This site tells us how, in 2009, there was a serious allegation of corruption made against Local Government Ombudsman, Jerry White. Letters were written to Nick Harvey, the Lib Dem MP for North Devon.  Harvey, it seems, wasn’t terribly bothered about looking into the case. He is now a Defence Minister in the current government. White “retired” from the LGO in 2009 to become a Professor in Modern History at Birkbeck College (yes, we found that a little surprising too).

Coalition Watch tells us how a committee of MPs has complained about the performance of the LGO.

The Committee also criticised the LGO for taking far too long to determine some cases, and said that it should apply strict deadlines to all the cases that it handles. The LGO responded by claiming that its performance against time standards for handling complaints compare well with other Ombudsman schemes.

The LGO hands over responsibility for investigating housing complaints from council tenants to the Housing Ombudsman in April 2013, and called in its Annual Report published last week for a shared services approach, saying “We believe this would be both cost-effective and provide a streamlined, efficient service to tenants.”

You can read the full report here. This page is also rather interesting

Incidentally, this report was published a couple of weeks ago.

Local authorities tell us that once you have exhausted the complaints procedure, you have the right to refer your complaint to the LGO. It would appear that most, if not all, local authorities, realize the LGO is about as useful to the complainant as a chocolate fire-guard.

Here is a case where a man took his case to the LGO, only for them to refuse to investigate it.

The brief facts leading to the complaint.

In 2009 a council officer wanted decades of free (but controlled) parking  outside the small town centre shops replaced with a PAY & DISPLAY scheme.

After a trial period the council netted tens of thousands of pounds from charges and Penalty Charge Notices. In June 2010 councillors were due to discuss and debate the scheme and vote to implement it permanently or return to the status quo.

Prior to the meeting all councillors were contacted and three acknowledged the correspondence with one stating he would propose a motion to abolish the scheme on the grounds there had been no additional parking achieved and congestion from queuing vehicles had not reduced. The other two stated they would listen to the arguments and vote accordingly. The council received a 250 signature petition against the scheme.

At the meeting officers produced a REPORT stating 50% of the traders supported the scheme and wished to see it made permanent.

No discussion or debate took place, the Report was accepted without question or query and councillors nodded through the scheme and moved on to the next item on the agenda completely ignoring the wishes of the electorate.

Within a few days I carried out a face to face survey of twenty traders in the town centre with the following result: TWO supported the scheme. TWO had no view, SIXTEEN were against the scheme and wished to see a return to free (controlled) parking.

The REPORT given to councillors stated 50% of the traders supported the PAY & DISPLAY scheme. This was a deliberate falsification of the facts. As a result of a formal complaint to the council (before approaching the Ombudsman) parts of the REPORT were altered!

The suggestion to the council that an independent survey be carried out to establish the wishes of the traders was rejected out of hand despite the council be given an assurance the complaint would be withdrawn and that a survey would show the electorate the council was anxious to listen and learn.

DETAILS OF THE COMPLAINT TO THE LGO

Councillors were lazy, supine and undemocratic in failing to debate and discuss the issue. Councillors woefully failed to represent the electorate when dealing with a controversial issue.

Officers of the council were dishonest in producing a REPORT that did not accurately reflect the views and opinions of those surveyed. The REPORT was deliberately biased to ensure councillors would vote to make the scheme permanent.

THE RESPONSE FROM THE OMBUDSMAN

Refused  to investigate my complaint on the grounds I had not been personally disadvantaged or affected by the actions of the council.

You can read more here. There are more shocking cases here.

My local council, like many others, frequently behaves in an arrogant and bullying manner. Any request for further information is often met with silence. When you point out their numerous mistakes, they refuse to apologize and will even try passing the blame onto the complainant. I made a complaint to the LGO four years ago and guess what happened next? Nothing. The LGO looked past the evidence of maladministration and sided with the council.

Ombudsman Watcher also tells us that,

The LGO report over 20 times less maladministration than they did a few years ago.

That the LGO have the worst customer satisfaction rating of all Public Services Ombudsmen!

The reasons why the LGO has reported lower figures for maladministration cases is because it doesn’t want to damage the cosy relationship it has with local authorities.  As for customer satisfaction ratings, it has no use for those because it doesn’t survey its clients. The LGO does have a complaints procedure but few people bother to use it.

This site exposes the LGO’s corruption and cover-ups.

The present Government promotes institutionalised corruption by the Local Government Ombudsman and miscarriages of justice. Whilst this situation prevails complainants will continue to suffer injustice, council services will not improve, and inept council officers can walk away with their reputations intact knowing that the Local Government Ombudsman is no more than a toothless tiger, protected by a Government in denial of the truth.

The Tory-led government has no interest in how the LGO operates. After all, the only people likely to be using the service are those who are council estate dwellers or small traders. Those with the money can find ways around planning laws.

The same site also tells us that several LGO officers have been accused of corruption. 

The LGO are unwilling to investigate maladministration and those of us who have been victims of it have no choice but to either continue fighting or take the law into our hands.  Most solicitors won’t touch a maladministration case against a local council. I know, because I’ve tried.

What I’ve highlighted is only the tip of a very big iceberg. It’s clear that the LGO is not as impartial and as independent as we have been led to believe. Councils will play what I call “the complaints procedure game” safe in the knowledge that the final stage ends with a sympathetic quango; one so sympathetic to local authorities that it will cover up instances of maladministration with nary a second thought.

It’s time for the LGO to go.

 

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