Local Government Ombudsman issues advice to councils on how to silence 'difficult' complainants

The Government's controversial watchdog for local government in England, the Local Government Ombudsman, has just published (19 January 2007) a Guidance Note to local authorities that effectively gives councils official licence to ignore or marginalise complainants whom council officers decide to categorise as too tenacious in their efforts to achieve a fair and just outcome. Councils will now, at their discretion, have official Ombudsman sanction to brand taxpayers as 'unreasonably persistent complainants' and impose draconian restrictions in terms of how the authority treats further communications, even following 'one or two isolated incidents' on the part of the complainant. The Ombudsman lists examples of the kind of complainant behaviour that could merit such a sanction, which includes: continuing to disagree with a council's claim that your complaint falls outside the remit of its complaints procedure; continuing to assert a complaint against an officer that the council chooses to regard as groundless, and continuing to ask that a different officer deal with your case; continuing to ask for a response to new material and evidence that the council has decided to categorise as trivial or irrelevant; electronically recording a conversation or meeting without telling the council officer in advance, (presumably even if it is in order to obtain evidence of council wrongdoing that they would never record in writing); daring to pursue a complaint with the council at the same time as with a Member of Parliament/ a councillor/ the authority's independent auditor/ the Standards Board/ local police/ solicitors/ the Ombudsman; and refusing to accept the council's decision when you think it is wrong. If a council decides it is convenient to brand a citizen who has dared to commit any of the above as an 'unreasonably persistent complainant,' then the Ombudsman gives the council licence simply to send an acknowledgement following any further correspondence from that individual, without heeding or acting on the content, or even to tell them that no further acknowledgement to communications will be sent.

It is, of course, in everyone's interest that genuinely obstructive and unreasonable complainants should not be able to waste council officers' time and energy. However, these latest Local Government Ombudsman guidelines are wholly unacceptable and represent a clear threat to our democratic way of life - in which the concerned citizen has always had a crucial role to play. Rejecting a complaint on the grounds that the complainant has involved his local MP or councillors is to fly in the face of traditions of civic life and civic duty that have evolved in this country over many centuries. They evolved in that way for a very good reason, namely, to discourage abuse of authority. Power, unfortunately, has a tendency to corrupt. If these insidious guidelines are not challenged, local authorities will have a new means of silencing those who ask difficult and searching questions. If such citizens are silenced, who will then challenge incompetence, cynicism, and powerful vested interest? Can complacent and uncaring authority, brandishing its doctrine of restricted remit like some kind of badge of honour, be relied upon to do so? The only real beneficiaries of these new guidelines will be maladministration, misgovernance, and further civic alienation.

In 2005, Mr and Mrs Balchin were awarded 100,000 compensation by Norfolk Council (and 100,000 by the Department of Transport) following a twenty year battle, after a plan to build a bypass 12 feet from their property led to them losing their 435,000 home, their business and their savings. They also both suffered ill health as a result of the stress of the case. Under the new Local Government Ombudsman guidelines, they would, no doubt, have been silenced many years ago - not least because they enlisted, among others, the help of their MP, Sir Michael Lord: apparently an infringement according to the LGO's new Guidance Note.

This LGO document serves to reinforce the growing impression that the Local Government Ombudsman is hand-in-glove with the local authorities it claims to monitor impartially. The consumer rights organisation Local Government Ombudsman Watch (LGOWatch) has exposed to public scrutiny the fact that all three Ombudsmen for England are former local authority CEOs, and that they find maladministration in less than 2% of the complaints they receive that are within jurisdiction. This is a far lower figure than that of the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Given its far too cosy relationship with local government, it is hardly any surprise that the LGO is becoming increasingly challenged by dissatisfied consumers.

In 2005, the three Local Government Ombudsmen were summoned to appear before the ODPM Parliamentary Select Committee and forced to respond to allegations of pro-council bias raised by LGOWatch and others. The Welsh Ombudsman was similarly hauled before a Parliamentary Committee in the mid 90's. LGOWatch exposed that, in commissioned by the Ombudsman's office itself, 73% of complainants described themselves as 'dissatisfied' with the outcome of their complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman, including even approximately half of the tiny percentage who had achieved a finding of maladministration. The result of this bad publicity: the MORI polls were immediately discontinued by the LGO, and replaced with a customer satisfaction survey carried out by a different market research company that omitted the embarrassing questions.

The Ombudsman's guidance on persistent complainants.
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