Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Complaints in Wales - A candid view from the Ombudsman

There was an interesting and candid discussion last week between the Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall and the cross-party Welsh Assembly committee for Communities, Equalities and Local Government. Mr Tyndall, who was presenting his annual report, announced last month that he was stepping down and taking up the position of Ombudsman for Ireland.

The full transcript of the meeting can be read here.

Mr Tyndall was concerned about the rise in complaints across Wales, at 12% he felt this could no longer be explained by the growing public awareness of the role and remit of his office; undoubtedly the public were becoming very dissatisfied with the public services they received.

He was particularly concerned with the rise in complaints against health boards and social care services, and as the health service lurches from one crisis to another, he's right to be concerned.

Health complaints have increased by 290% since 2006 and he warned that, at this rate and without an increase in funding for the ombudsman's office, the current level of service they provided would be unsustainable after one year.

As a representative of Carmarthenshire, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, (and speaking from bitter experience), disagreed with Mr Tyndall's view that, unlike health complaints, the number of complaints against local government appeared to be holding steady. Mr Tyndall's memories of wrestling with Carmarthenshire Council must have come flooding back and he reminisced; 
'Rhodri Glyn and I have enjoyed conversations about Carmarthenshire County Council. I understand some of the issues that we have seen with complaints that have come from there—there have been some particularly intractable ones, and some quite high-profile ones'.

Back to health and he felt there were two main causes for the rise in public dissatisfaction, first of all was the increasing pressure the health service is under but more importantly that the health boards were not dealing with complaints properly themselves, partly due to lack of staff and resources but also due to the way complaints are handled, he said;
"...many of the complaints that come to my office are exacerbated by the fact that, when first asked what went wrong, they ask the people who made the mistake, ‘Did you make mistakes?’, and those people say, ‘No, guv, we got it right’, and they then simply repeat that to the person who is complaining."

Many will recognise the same pattern when complaining to the local authority, well Carmarthenshire anyway. In June 2012 the ombudsman referred to our best council in Wales in less than complimentary terms;
'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'

Rhodri Glyn Thomas felt that in his dealings with health boards and local government the problem was a refusal to accept an error had been made, even a simple issue becomes magnified into a huge problem, when the public body refuses to simply admit to a mistake and try and resolve it at ground level using independent advice where necessary.
Mr Tyndall agreed that there was a culture of defensiveness which needed to be addressed.

Community Health Councils who took on an advocacy role for patients were not fulfilling their potential, and there needed to be 'people on the ground in hospitals whom patients can go to talk to, whom they feel are independent of the doctors and are on the patients’ side'. The health complaints system seems to be a ticking time bomb.

The discussion moved on to Code of Conduct complaints, and whilst his local resolution process for minor complaints was beginning to filter out the trivial political banter complaints, dysfunctional town and community councils continue to be a problem and some, he said, caused more harm than good, "some of them have been conducting disputes since the dawn of time and they no longer even remember why they cannot stand each other".

Recent ombudsman guidance following the Calver judgment basically suggested that both Members and senior officers needed to grow a thicker skin to ensure robust scrutiny and democratic debate, maybe this example from Carmarthenshire helped the ombudsman formulate his guidance....

Another AM raised the point that in some councils, scrutiny by members was extremely difficult and becoming almost non-existent due to 'implicit and sometimes explicit' threats to report members to the ombudsman for vigourously challenging officer decisions and corporate policy.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas echoed this and added that opposition members had a harder job, as these days it appeared that chief executives and senior officers represented the executive board rather than the whole council. (I think he probably had Carmarthenshire in mind and was being polite because in Carms of course the executive board represents the chief executive and senior officers, and as for the 'whole council', they might as well go home).

Mr Tyndall, in response, said his guidance was clear, the role of members to hold the executive to account is paramount and indeed, exactly what the electorate expects; 

"the notion of a strong political challenge to a chief executive or a planning officer on a particular issue is something that we would never regard as falling outside the bounds of the code of conduct; that is a member’s job"

Councillors might want to bear this last comment in mind at tomorrow's meeting of full council should they wish to enquire about any 'unlawful' payments....


Anonymous said...

It is so heartening to hear Peter Tyndall's comments on challenging chief executives and senior officers.It is something we all know should be happening but democracy is so clearly dead in the water in Carmarthenshire.Everyone by now should realise that without welsh government intervention senior officers will continue with their stranglehold on members who are not strong enough to act alone.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is all too easy to say we should challenge them but when they operate a bunker mentality with secret meetings with no agendas or minutes published we have nothing to challenge. Democracy requires that decisions are taken transparently but alas this is not the case not just in Wales but all over rhe UK.

I blame the Executive style council system - it encourages those in the Executive (officers and councillors) to see themselves as the only players in the game.

Unless and until this is changed (and no party shows any desire to do this since it is a system that operates to the advantage of any party in power) we will be a silent and cowed majority.

We need strong, Independent councillors who have no party whip to form some sort of check and balance and if there are enough of them to form a serious REAL opposition to those whose power has gone to their already swollen heads.

Anonymous said...

I was anon @20:8 and I agree with anon @ 13:04.No opportunity to challenge`when you have a mind set of the likes of Pam Palmer.That is why I mention The Welsh Government
who must be aware by now that it is the time for them to take responsibility for the chaos that is growing by the day in Carmarthenshire.