In presenting the report, the Assistant Director explained that a recent review of corporate complaints and the Unreasonably Persistent Complaints Policy had highlighted a review of the policies was required to reflect best practice and to provide clarification on key points. It was explained that the report related to the policy on persistent complainants and had been renamed the Unreasonable Complainants Policy.
The Panel was advised that a tracked changes version of the policy was attached to the report. Members were invited to review the proposed changes and approve the revised policy.
Councillor Joyce referred to 4 – Implementation of the policy on page 42 and the proposal for the Executive Director in consultation with the Chief Executive or Monitoring Officer to authorise staff to terminate contact with the complainant on the subject of the complaint(s) and discontinue any further investigation. Councillor Joyce outlined the benefits and disadvantages of the proposal and suggested that Members be involved in the internal appeal process. The Chief Executive agreed to look at the wording on page 42 section 4.
Under Standing Order 34, Councillor Nash addressed the Panel and commented on the draft policy:
· Reference was made to the complaints section of the council’s website and Councillor Nash commented that the information published penalised the Councillor.
· Reference to the Local Government Ombudsman and the “scattergun approach” when raising a complaint. The Assistant Director explained that this was a standard part of the Ombudsman advice and undertook to provide a more detailed definition on the policy.
· Page 43 – there was no mention where the complainant could raise a new complaint and this was unacceptable. The Assistant Director to revise the wording to include that the introduction of new evidence would be considered.
· Potential conflict of interest.
· Decision to go to Standards Committee for determination to invoke the policy.
· Councillor Nash stated that he had been on the unreasonably persistent complainants register for 3 years and 9 months.
Following further questions and comments from the Panel, the Assistant Director emphasised that the policy would only be invoked if the complainant had exhausted the council’s corporate complaints policy and the Local Government Ombudsman. Councillor Moriarty referred to the last paragraph on page 42 and asked if the wording could be looked at to include – if the complainant had exhausted the council’s corporate complaints policy and the Local Government Ombudsman, the complainant should as a last resort contact their MP or a Councillor.
Councillor Moriarty made further comments on page 42 of the policy and suggested that the Monitoring Officer together with the Chair or the entire Standards Committee may authorise staff to terminate contact with the complainant. The Assistant Director informed that Panel that Councillors, such as the Ward Councillor could be involved in the decision to invoke the policy rather than the entire Standards Committee, but his suggestion was not supported.
Following a discussion on the effect on staff dealing with complex complaints, the Panel was reminded of the Council’s duty of care to look after employees.
Comments were made on the appeals process and it was recognised that an independent view would be beneficial. The Assistant Director outlined the appeals process and highlighted that the appeal would be reviewed by a separate officer who had not been involved in investigating the complaint. The Chief Executive explained that she would make the decision to invoke the policy after an investigation had been undertaken by an Executive Director and added that an independent person or Chair and Vice- Chair of the Standards committee could be included.
The Chair suggested that the first line of the policy be amended to read:
“This policy sets out our approach to the exceptional circumstances when complainants who complain in a way that is unreasonable.” In response the Assistant Director reiterated that the policy was rarely invoked and undertook to amend the policy.
Councillor Sampson commented that consideration should be given to an acceptable timescale, for example, six months when a complainant submitted new evidence so that the complaint did not go on for a significant amount of time. Under Standing Order 34, Councillor Nash stated that the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) policy was clear about a time limit and added that the relevant text could be taken from the LGO policy and inserted into the council’s policy. However, Councillor Nash commented that it was not satisfactory to impose a time limit. Councillor Sampson did not disagree with Councillor Nash but raised concern that a line needed to be drawn somewhere to conclude a complaint. In conclusion, Councillor Dark reminded those present that the Panel should consider how new evidence should be submitted into the complaints process when determining the decision. The Assistant Director added that the main principle of the policy was to allow fairness and flexibility throughout the stages of the complaints process. The Leader highlighted the importance of allow new evidence to come forward when a complaint was being determined.
Councillor Tyler commented that professional officers were employed to determine the decision to invoke the policy so why would you wish to bring Councillors in to be included in the decision making process. Councillor Hudson concurred with the comment made by Councillor Tyler but highlighted the importance of an independent view.
Councillor Morley suggested that a flow chart be included to supplement the Policy to which the Panel agreed. The Assistant Director undertook to include a flowchart in the policy before being presented to Cabinet.
The Chair concluded that the consensus of the Panel was that a degree of independence was required when making the decision to invoke the policy and south the view of Members as to whether this should be an Independent Person or the Chair and Vice Chair of the Standards Committee.
Councillor Joyce explained that there was a potential risk if one individual took the decision to invoke the policy and stated that the Standards Committee should be involved comprising two to three Members.
The Chief Executive added that two or three Members from the Standards Committee could be involved dependent on availability.
Councillor Mrs Dickinson commented that as the policy was rarely invoked, why was there a need to be so prescriptive on the involvement of the Standards Committee.
Following comments on Section 5 – Appeals procedure, point 6, the Assistant Director provided an overview of the appeal procedure and explained that if a complainant was placed on the register, this did not prevent the complainant from submitting a new complaint. The Chair suggested that this reassurance did not appear in the policy. In response, the Assistant Director agreed to clarify the point raised in the policy.
Councillor Moriarty suggested the following amendments:
· Page 43: Paragrap1: Add - unless the complaint contained new evidence/ information.
· Page 45: Appeals Procedure: Add – in consultation with the Standards Committee.
· The Policy to be reviewed on an annual basis by the Corporate Performance Panel.
The Leader commented that he welcomed the views of the Panel prior to the policy being considered by Cabinet.
The Chair thanked the Assistant Director for presenting the report and the Panel for their input into the draft policy.
RESOLVED: The Panel reviewed the proposed changes and recommended the approval of the policy subject to the amendments set out above.