Submission by Accountability Scotland to the Local Government and Communities Committee regarding the SPSO's Annual Report 2017/18
17 January 2019

From the Chairman and Secretary in some haste.

Here are some issues we would like raised at the LGCC meeting with the Ombudsman on 23 January. 

We find that some relate to items in her Briefing Notes on Accessibility, in which case these are quoted first.

We applaud and support the fresh approach of the report.

Re Briefing Notes

Accessibility

The report comments as follows in three paragraphs:

  • 38. The SPSO Act was put in place before use of digital (and telephone) services were common place. Currently it requires complaints to be in writing. I can waive this in exceptional circumstances, but that puts the onus on a complainer demonstrating why their circumstances are exceptional.
  • 39. Put simply, I am seeking the powers to take complaints in any format. Having these powers would enable us to design our business to be more accessible, remove communication barriers and assist greatly in delivering one of our core values: we are people focussed.
  • 40. This change is widely supported among stakeholders to whom we have spoken about it.

Our Six Comments with Questions

A - Communication and ADHD

Some individuals have much more difficulty than most of us realise dealing with officialdom, telephones and questionnaires, and generally expressing their complaints. Sometimes this is a matter of education and experience, but there is a particular problem with people with ADHD. The chairman of Accountability Scotland has discussed this issue with the latter, individually and in a group, and it is clear that SPSO investigators need to make allowance for their problems in this context. Some people have these difficulties without realising that they have a level of ADHD that is to blame. Also relevant here are people with learning difficulties and also some on the autistic spectrum.

Questions:

  • To what extent are SPSO investigators trained to deal with this problem and so investigate adequately and effectively?
  • Are complainants offered face-to-face discussions? 

B - Access to Communications 

Some complainants tell us that they have not been allowed to see important communications between SPSO and BUJs and between SPSO and advisers. Without sight of what the BUJ has said, it is impossible for a complainant to question or correct what is being said about them and about the subject of the complaint. The complainant lacks the luxury of having the full (perhaps false) evidence that the SPSO has.

Question: What is the SPSO’s attitude to such a lack of transparency?

C - Level of Workload 

The report comments as follows in two paragraphs:

  • 19. The biggest concern in relation to resources remains that linked to investigation capacity as complaints are increasing in complexity and, taking longer. They, therefore require more investigation resource”.
  • 23. We have only managed to maintain performance because of an impressive increase in productivity by staff and a decrease in community care grants reviews received but I am aware staff are working under increased pressure to meet the very tight targets and any further increase in the number of crisis grants may make that unsustainable. “

The report notes that “for some months we had exceptionally high personal workloads. the resources we have are sufficient only for as long as there is no increase in complaints coming in. if complaint volumes rise by more than a few percent, our resources are no longer sufficient to maintain current levels of performance.”

The most recent survey of staff satisfaction (before the change of ombudsman), showed this to have then been very poor, partly due to pressure of work.

That could well be responsible for some of the complainant dissatisfaction. Even now there are complainants indignant at the treatment of themselves and their evidence. Therefore, regardless of the rightness of SPSO decisions, time should be given to ensuring complainants understand that the SPSO has investigated fully, adequately, effectively and sympathetically as far as is consistent with statutory powers.

Question: Should not SPSO financial resources therefore be increased, despite the above statement of the SPSO, to allow an increase in the number of investigators?

D - Adequacy & Effectiveness of Investigation

Despite the fact that 58.8% of complaints were upheld in full or part, too many people still lack faith in the ability of the SPSO to deliver justice. There has never been an independent review of the adequacy, effectiveness and quality of the SPSO’s decisions since its inception.

Question: In what ways might an independent review be inappropriate or unworkable?

E - Highlighting a General Problem

The report comments as follows in two paragraphs:

  • 31. The two main areas where amendment or extension is being sought concern Public Value (own initiative) Investigation powers and accessibility.
    Public Value Investigations
  • 32. Public Value Investigations are those instigated by the Ombudsman’s own initiative, and do not have to be about a specific complaint.

Sometimes the experiences of an individual complainant point to the existence of a more general problem affecting other members of the public.

Question: Do you think that the SPSO legislation should be modified to allow the SPSO to widen the scope of investigations?

F - Psychological Damage

We are very aware of complainants who, believing they have been denied justice, have suffered long term psychological damage, unable to put matters to rest, This may become understandably burdensome to the SPSO and relevant BUJs. Labelling complainants as ‘vexatious’ appears to be just a way of shutting them out.

Question: Can you see a compassionate solution to this problem?