Sandwell council refused to let a vulnerable mother have her representative present at an important meeting and made serious and unsubstantiated allegations about both of them during an investigation by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.
The mother, who was claiming asylum, lived with her son in a one bedroomed flat, provided by the council. She was being supported in her claim for asylum by a not-for-profit organisation.
The mother complained to the council about the help it was providing, including the suitability of her accommodation and the support offered to her child. She was subsequently barred from having representatives from her support organisation attend meetings with the council and, on one occasion, the council threatened to call the police if the woman’s representatives did not leave the place where a meeting was being held.
When the Ombudsman investigated, the council made serious allegations about the mother and her representative’s conduct. However, the council could not back up its claims or provide evidence it had started safeguarding procedures to ensure the safety of her son as a result of these allegations.
Throughout the Ombudsman’s investigation, the council made claims it could not justify or provide records or other evidence for, including that the representative organisation was motivated by financial incentives and that it sent abusive and threatening emails to the council. Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King said:
“This investigation has been characterised throughout by inconsistent evidence presented by Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council. It has made serious and distressing claims it cannot substantiate, and yet we have seen no evidence to call into question the behaviour of either this mother or her representatives.
“Although the council now acknowledges the views expressed were those of an individual officer, throughout my investigation it presented those views as its own. I am particularly concerned the actions of the officer involved were supervised by managers and no interventions were made.
“This is not the first complaint we have upheld against the council in its dealings with this not-for-profit organisation. I now strongly urge the council to take on board the recommendations I have made to improve its services and hope it will now start to rebuild bridges with the representative’s organisation, which provides support to some of the most vulnerable people in its area.”
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case the council will arrange for a senior officer to meet with the woman and her representatives to apologise in person for the unsubstantiated allegations made against them, and remove them from the record. It will also apologise to the woman and pay her a token amount of £250 to acknowledge the distress it caused, and time and trouble she was put to pursuing her complaint.
The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case the council will remind staff that families have a right to be accompanied to meetings by appropriate representatives. It will also remind staff of the Health and Care Professions Council’s (now Social Work England) Standards of Proficiency for Social Workers in England.
It will arrange to meet with the organisation representing the woman to develop a better understanding of each other’s aims and responsibilities and attempt to produce a working agreement.
It will also review its protocol for families with no recourse to public funds to explain those circumstances in which financial or other support may be restricted or withdrawn, and review any literature given to families with no recourse to public funds to ensure it clearly explains their rights and its obligations to them.