Sunday 16 December 2012

Unacceptable complaints


One of the other recommendations contained in the Ombudsman's report was that the council should carry out a review of its planning enforcement policy. Let's remember that that recommendation was made in July.

Nothing at all happened for a long while, until recently when there has been a strange game of bureaucratic pass the parcel, all of which has had the unfortunate and no doubt unintended consequence of slowing matters down even further.

The game began in November when the Planning Department asked the Environmental and Public Protection Scrutiny Committee to undertake an "urgent" review of planning enforcement policy.

The council has five scrutiny committees, and it turns out that the Planning Department sent the request to the wrong committee because responsibility for planning matters comes under the Community Scrutiny Committee.

The Environmental and Public Protection duly deliberated and resolved to forward the matter to the Community Committee, which duly acknowledged the referral at its most recent meeting on 3 December. Minutes of that meeting are not yet available, but the likelihood would seem to be that the urgent review will have to take its place in the queue behind other matters in the committee's pipeline.

Odd, wasn't it, that the Planning Department did not know which committee was responsible for scrutinising it? Surely the council isn't dragging its feet?


On 16 October this year BBC Wales broadcast a documentary on the planning enforcement case involving Mrs Trisha Breckman.

The case was the subject of an exhaustive investigation by the Public Services Ombudsman who delivered his report to Carmarthenshire Council in early July. The Ombudsman asked the council's officers to distribute copies of the report to councillors within three months. That did not happen, and the council, in the shape of its senior officers, asked the Ombudsman for a two week extension.

The broadcast went out at about the time the two week extension lapsed, and councillors still had not received copies of the report.

Peter Hughes Griffiths (Plaid), the leader of the opposition on the council, responded to the broadcast with a statement as follows:

"Despite the Ombudsman's report being published at the start of July, Councillors have yet to be provided with either a copy of the report or an opportunity to discuss the findings openly in the council chamber. This lack of discussion is a direct contravention of the Ombudsman's recommendation.

What is clear from the Ombudsman's comments is that the authority lost all objectivity in the case and subsequently failed Carmarthenshire residents.

The leadership of this authority must do better and never allow such an injustice to happen again. I expect the Leader of the Council to present the Ombudsman's full report at the next meeting of the Council."

Two months have passed since that statement, and the report has still not been presented to councillors. There were suggestions at one point that the report might instead be discussed at a meeting of the Executive Board. That has not happened either.

Calls for a public inquiry into the planning department were subsequently also rejected by the Welsh Government.

One of the Ombudsman's criticisms concerned the council's policy on persistent complainants, and it is perhaps for that reason that the Executive Board will tomorrow discuss an amended policy which is now called "Policy on Unacceptable Actions by Complainants".

The policy is a very one-sided affair indeed. The council and its officers will decide what is unacceptable.

The legal brains behind the document have a stab at defining "unacceptable", but do what weak and lazy lawyers always do in such situations: they throw in that little catch-all "includes but is not limited to" . The document is spattered with this phrase.

Of course council staff and councillors should not be subjected to violence or threatening behaviour, but the council gives itself enormous latitude in determining what constitutes abusive behaviour. Making what a council officer in his or her opinion considers to be an unsubstantiated allegation counts as abusive behaviour, we are told.

Not only is the drafting lazy, but it is also badly written and drafted. Take the following sentence:

"We will also consider any combination of these elements or any other behaviour which the Authority considers amounts to inappropriate conduct, to a single member of staff or to a group of different staff."

It is not clear what "these elements" are to begin with, and the wording is so opaque that it could mean whatever you (or rather, the council) decide it means at the time.

Stand by for many more members of the public being told that their behaviour is [but not necessarily limited to] inappropriate, offensive, abusive or unacceptable, depending on the mood of the person they are talking to at the time.

If you would like the Welsh Government to establish a public inquiry into the Breckman case, please feel free to sign this petition.


Anonymous said...

Previously, 'going to the MP/AM' or 'going to the press' was considered 'unreasonable conduct' by complainants in the policy guidance; the priority, unsurprisingly for this council, to ensure 'a co-ordinated response from the press office'.
There is nothing to suggest this has now changed.
The 'unofficial' blacklist of course sits in a locked drawer in the presidential suite, the latest entry being the South Wales Guardian.

Patricia B. said...

The more sinister aspect of this policy was that we were not at any time notified we were even on any kind of policy/register. We had to find that out for ourselves five months later by pure accident, and were not at any time kept informed as to reviews on us, or who attended these reviews, or how long we were to blacklisted for. The only reason, we later found out, we were put on this blacklist, was because the council deemed our complaints to be 'unfounded' which as we all know now were not 'unfounded at all!! It doesn't seem that any lessons have been learnt, but that this policy/blacklist has become ever more menacing. Over to our councillors who should be deeply concerned, and Carl Sargeant should be equally disturbed by the use of a policy which has the potential of silencing anyone who may have a genuine grievance, complaint, or just simply questioning, which for whatever reason, officers do not wish to address. Truly a very worrying development, but not at all surprising given the treatment of us.

Delyth Jenkins said...

"Council staff and Councillors should not be subjected to violence
or threatening behaviour" - This is double standards from a Council who failed to deal with an assault on me as an employee by a member of staff, and this same member of staff went on to assault a service user 13 months later in an almost identical hit. This has never been investigated. Even if the Council deny it ever happened for obvious reasons, a serious allegation of this nature must be investigated. Yet the Managers who failed to investigate are still there. There will be changes, there has to be in light of the report by the Government into what went on at Winterbourne view in Bristol. This report will have an effect across the Country. It is not a matter of if but when this will happen and until it does I will keep on the pressure for change. I haven't gone through the last 6 years of fighting the system to desert the vulnerable at this point.

Anonymous said...

Patricia B .... In light of the Clift v Slough Borough Council [2010] case, I think it would be wise to send CCC a subject access request(SAR).

Delyth Jenkins said...

The fact that the Ombudsman can only make recommendations is a nonsense as far as I am concerned.
The Welsh Government needs to give the Ombudsman the power to enforce recommendations and if a complainant's case is upheld, the Officers involved should not be given anonimity.

caebrwyn said...

With regards to the update, the Community Scrutiny Committee has already complained to the Executive Board that their remit is too wide and that, in addition, they are only responsible for planning policy, not enforcement issues etc. With the reduction in the number of scrutiny committees, and this one clearly overloaded, it can only lead to even less scrutiny.

Anonymous said...

I've been informed that when the Ombudsman said the Council should consider his report, the Chief Exec took this to mean the Council as a corporate body and therefore it was presented to the Exec Board rather than full council.
Doesn't stop the Chief Exec using "Council" to describe full council in almost all of his correspondence, though! Mark James makes North Korea look like a democratic utopia!

Cneifiwr said...

You may well be right, Anon @21.58, although there is no mention of it in any of the Executive Board agendas, even as an "exempt" item.

If it was discussed, this begs the question of how many other important decisions and discussions take place that are not on the agenda.

caebrwyn said...

@Cneifiwr Perhaps I should re-phrase; it was the minutes of the scrutiny meeting (10th Sept) which stated; "Members expressed concerns about the size and nature of the new Committee’s remit and its capacity to undertake its role - A referral be made to the Executive Board to note the Committee’s concerns about the nature and size of its remit and capacity to deliver its scrutiny role".
There have been 7 Executive board meetings since then and ,as you say, there has not been a mention on any agenda.

Anonymous said...

Who is "the council" in this context seems to be an important question. In ordinary understanding "the council" would mean all the councillors. At a (big) push it might mean the executive board. On no common sense interpretation would "the council" mean "no f***ing councillor at all".

Unfortunately if the council leadership is prepared to be a dog wagged by its officer tail, what on earth do you do?

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, the Welsh government and its Ministers are looking very much like an extension of this rotten borough condoning their disgraceful conduct. There is a very strong case for the Ombudsman to have far reaching powers as no-one else gives a damn!

Anonymous said...

Don't know whether the Ombudsman would even make a stand now. I suppose it's easier to keep the lid
on and not rock the boat!

Anonymous said...

Looks to me as if even the Ombudsman might prefer to go with the flow from now on.

Delyth Jenkins said...

Interesting news report tonight concerning criticism by the Public Services Ombudsman For Wales of the CSSIW (Care and Social Services Ispectorate for Wales)with regards to care of the elderly.
I raised concerns about the effectiveness of the CSSIW after a review by them into the learning disability service following a damning report of Carmarthenshire County Council's social services department,by the Ombudsman in Sept. 2009. Time and time again we hear of failings in care, not just in elderly services, but across the board, but implementation of improvements is taking far too long. There needs to be radical changes in management structures to improve services, both in care services and within regulatory bodies. It seems that some of the managers are lacking in vital qualificatios,knowledge and experience needed to carry out the job effectively.

Delyth Jenkins said...

The CSSIW was launched in April 2007 following the merger of the Care Standards Inspectorate Wales (CSIW) and the Social Standards Inspectorate Wales (SSIW). I wrote to the CSIW in July 2006 when the Council failed to show me that they had done anything about my complaints(they had already been sitting on the complaint for 9 months by that time). An email received from a CSIW Inspector stated that it was not within their remit to investigate as the day service I complained about was not registered with them. Despite this, a CSIW Inspector telephoned me at home a few days later and told me that she had spoken to the C.C.C Director of Social Services and she said that if I valued my job I had taken this as far as I could. This sounded very much like a threat and days later I took my complaint to the Public Services Ombudsman For Wales.

Delyth Jenkins said...

SSIW referred to above was the Social Services Inspectorate Wales

Delyth Jenkins said...

The above information was given to the Ombudsman's investigation at the time so it's not new information.