Children’s services at Northamptonshire County Council subject of 52 complaints to the ombudsman last year

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A report has revealed Northamptonshire County Council’s children’s services were the subject of 52 complaints to a government watchdog in the last year alone.

It is now more than two years since Ofsted’s damning report labelled the authority’s system for stopping neglect and abuse of children as “inadequate.”

Measures have been put in place to improve children’s services, such as reducing the caseload work taken on by individual social workers and replacing agency staff with full time workers.

But a report by the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) has revealed that in 2014/15 the county council received the sixth highest number of complaints relating to its children’s services of any local authority in the country.

A Northamptonshire County Council spokesman said: “These figures from the Local Government Ombudsman reflect enquiries as well as complaints and it should be noted that only one in 10 of the overall enquiries and complaints were upheld. We also clearly publish information on the process for contacting the ombudsman both online and in our correspondence.

“In the area of children’s services and education, we have responded to and resolved a number of historical complaints in this area, which we consider good progress as we continue to improve our services for children and families in Northamptonshire.”

Councillor Bob Scott (Lab, Lloyds) said the figures come as little surprise to the opposition group.

“I think it shows what we have been saying in opposition for some time,” he said. “Yes there has been improvements to children’s services; spending £20 million, you would expect so.

“There are a lot of good things they have done, but progress appears to be slow, there is still a lot of ground to cover.”

The report, entitled The Review of Local Government Complaints, includes data for each council on the number of complaints and enquiries the LGO received, what was complained about and the number of complaints the LGO upheld, between April 2014 and March 2015.

Last year the council was the subject of 90 complaints to the ombudsman, with 52 in relation to education and children’s services.

Of the 90, 40 were referred back for “local resolution,” while 18 were closed after initial enquiries and nine were upheld.

Nationally the figures show a rise this year in complaints about adult social care, while those about benefits, tax and planning have fallen.

Although complaints about services for children and young people remain the LGO’s most “significant area of work,” a spokesperson said.

Local Government Ombudsman, Dr Jane Martin, said: “Our survey’s findings point to a local complaints system that is under real pressure.

“Complaint handling teams are having to do ‘more with less’ and the process is not as accessible and timely as it should be.

“More investment into complaints, both in terms of resources and developing an open culture, is a good value way of driving service improvement – and local government needs to challenge itself on this question. Complaints must be seen as a positive. They can provide an early warning system for issues and are an indicator of public sentiment.”

The LGO has also stated that complaint numbers on their own can only form part of the picture of how the complaints process is performing, however.

“A higher volume of complaints, for example, does not necessarily mean poorer standards of service;” a spokesperson said.

“It may indicate a council’s open approach to listening to feedback and using complaints as early indicator of potential issues.”

The ombudsman also received 40 complaints in relation to Northampton Borough Council over the past year, 17 of which were for housing related issues.