Earlier this year several residents of Carmarthenshire met with Welsh Assembly officials to raise their concerns about the Council's complaints system, particularly in relation to planning but not exclusively. Their concerns raised wider issues as to the objectivity of senior officers when handling complaints. I am aware of the cases involved, all of which were (and are currently) being investigated by the Ombudsman.
The full disclosure of emails and letters can be found on the Welsh Government FoI disclosure log here.
I do not know who requested the information but I am highlighting it here as I believe it certainly warrants greater exposure.
Following the meeting in February, the Minister, Carl Sargeant wrote to Meryl Gravell (now Ex-Leader of the Council);
"I am writing following representations that I have received over time expressing concerns about Carmarthenshire County Council's response to those submitting complaints about the service they have received. These include representations from the public and their elected representatives.
It is not, of course appropriate for me to become involved in individual cases.
However, the accusations that have been expressed to me, if true, raise concerns about the culture and approach to complaint handling within the council. They include, for example, ignoring communications, withholding information, breaking deadlines set by the Ombudsman, placing people on a 'persistent complainer's list' without notification and, more seriously, making false statements to others in order to discredit complainants......
With this in mind I would welcome your observations and seek an assurance as to the council's committment to ensuring that it has an appropriate and effective approach to complaints.
I am copying this letter to Peter Tyndall, Public Sector Ombudsman for Wales and would welcome his observations."
Naturally, Meryl (I doubt if Meryl actually penned this) went on the defensive and wrote back in February in the strongest terms (and at length) denying there were any problems with the council's complaint system leaving Mr Sargeant with a little veiled threat to keep his nose out unless he'd got 'further evidence'. Astonishing. The letter can be read here. (pdf)
Despite this, in May, the Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall responds to Carl Sargeant's request for input. His comments are scathing despite being cached in polite and reasonable terms.
Initially Mr Tyndall responds to the Minister's office (and the Ethics and Regulation Team) via email;
I can confirm that we have experienced difficulties with the [Carmarthenshire] Council in respect of complaints handled by my office. These include delays in responding to requests for information, delays in commenting on draft reports and lengthy delays in implementing my recommendations.
I drew my concerns to the attention of the Chief Executive [Mr Mark James] some time ago and requested a meeting to which he has failed to agree. I now intend pursuing this matter with the Leader of the council.....
Then Mr Tyndall confirms this in writing....(my underlining)
....Our experience with the council in respect of complaints handling is variable. Broadly speaking, our initial contacts in respect of complaints are generally good, and their staff are co-operative with mine in accepting complaints which have come prematurely to my office and in considering early resolutions where this is appropriate.
A small number of complaints which we have investigated, however, have given rise to a number of concerns, some of which are related to their Planning Department. In some instances, there have been lengthy delays in implementing my recommendations, up to a year in one instance. Their response seemed to be lacking direction and urgency.
In other instances, there has been considerable delay in providing information I have requested and in agreeing the draft of my reports. There would appear to be problems in addressing issues in respect of enforcement, in particular, where they have failed to act on clear evidence of breaches of planning consent. We were forced to issue a summons in respect of one retired planning officer due to his refusal to co-operate with my investigation and I now expect to issue a public report shortly because of a failure by the Council to agree to my recommendations.
There is some evidence that where the complainants become frustrated, and frankly are very demanding of the Council, that there is a loss of objectivity in considering their complaints. While this is understandable, it is not acceptable.
I have sought to pursue this matter in person with the Chief Executive, but he has thus far declined to meet me. I am therefore now writing to the new leader to request a meeting.
I have serious concerns that where complaints are not taken seriously at a senior level and where issues they highlight are not addressed because of an excessively defensive approach, service standards will suffer and errors will be repeated.
I will continue to keep your officials in the picture regarding the outcome of my engagement with the council. I have thus far held back from issuing a special report as these are normally reserved for situations where a body in my jurisdiction refuses to implement my findings. However, I am open to taking this course of action if co-operation with my service does not improve
This response from the Ombudsman, is damning, and confirms that a culture of arrogance and contempt, for a critical public (and on a personal level) thrives in senior levels at County Hall. I hope he publishes a 'Special Report'. No one who has had any dealings with the complaint system other than on the most basic level will be surprised at his comments. It is also notable that it was the Ombudsman's office who spoke out critically of the council on the recent BBC programme concerning the whistleblower, Delyth Jenkins.
The problem, of course is that whatever the Welsh Government, or the Wales Audit Office, or the Ombudsman say, basically the junta at County Hall doesn't give a toss, not even multiple appearances in Private Eye shame them into critical introspection. Surely this can't go on much longer.......?
Update 26th June; Excellent blogpost from Cneifiwr; Auditors, Ombudsmen and Councillors