Meeting note: Accountability Scotland and SPSO, 19 January 2018 - 11.30-13.00

Board Room, SPSO, 4 Melville Street, Edinburgh

Dr Richard Burton, Mr Peter Stewart-Blacker, Dr Jane Hamilton, Jack Stuart [omitted by SPSO]

Rosemary Agnew, Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. Niki Maclean, Director, John Stevenson, Head of Improvement, Standards and Engagement. Laura Kilpatrick, Team Assistant (in attendance: notes)

1. Introductions

RA welcomed everyone to the meeting and highlighted the SPSO’s Service Standards Report, which had been published the day prior. Accountability Scotland confirmed they had received a copy.

2.  Dr Skilling Report - Concerns identified by Accountability Scotland

Members of Accountability Scotland were particularly concerned about Dr Skilling’s report on Querulous Complainants. This overview was written for the SPSO in support of their thematic report – ‘Making Complaints Work for Everyone’.

  • Main concern was whether, and to what extent, this report was used within the SPSO and the influence it had on SPSO internal processes for dealing with complainants.
  • RA explained Dr Skilling’s report was his distinct point of view on querulous complainants. He was asked to give his opinion, and his report reflects this. By providing a link to this report on SPSO website, it does not follow that the report represents the views of the SPSO.
  • RA confirmed this was an additional report and had no influence on SPSO’s processes, or indeed the way in which we provide our services.
  • Dr Skilling is one of SPSO’s professional advisers however he only gives advice on specific cases as requested. He is not an employee of the SPSO and does not represent the view of the SPSO.
  • RA thanked Accountability Scotland for highlighting this concern and said she would look at the website to see if this distinction can be made clearer.

3. SPSO Customer Service

3.1. Concerns identified by Accountability Scotland

Referred to specific case in which the complainant felt they had been pressurised to change their complaints in order for the SPSO to accept their case.

Concerns also expressed that SPSO had a ‘blacklist’ with names of barred complainants. This related back to Dr Skilling report and vexatious complainants.

Service Standards Report: Glad that SPSO had given examples of people who were unhappy however are concerned about the customer satisfaction survey results.

Referenced Gibraltar Ombudsman and their high levels of customer satisfaction.
Queried why their model could not be adopted at SPSO. Gibraltar Ombudsman meets with complainants at close of every case.

3.2. SPSO comments

  • RA explained both the SPSO’s decision review process and the customer service complaints process where the final step is a review by Independent Customer Complaints Reviewer. While not able to comment on specific cases, RA strongly encouraged complainants to engage with SPSO through these processes where appropriate.
  • Confirmed there is no ‘blacklist’. SPSO have a publicised Unacceptable Actions Policy that is followed.
  • RA noted that the response rate to the customer satisfaction survey was low – less than a third responded. SPSO plan to develop Service Standards for customer feedback.
  • RA readdressed point from the last meeting that there are very significant differences between Scotland and Gibraltar in terms of scalability. RA noted she will not make any further comments on Gibraltar as it is not a comparable example.

3.3. Points to Note

  • RA asked Accountability Scotland to strongly encourage its members to bring forward any specific cases to her in future if they had major customer service concerns.
  • SPSO will not be adopting ISO 9001.

4. Accessibility

4.1. Additional support

  • Accountability Scotland are concerned there are barriers stopping individuals in making complaints. Examples: mental health issues, literacy skills.
  • Noted complaints can only be in writing. Referred again to Gibraltar Ombudsman meeting complainants at close of case to discuss outcome.
  • RA noted she is currently in discussions with the Scottish Government to have SPSO legislation amended so that complaints need not necessarily be in writing in all circumstances.
  • While SPSO may be able to provide support and guidance to members of the public who wish to complain, it is important to note that SPSO cannot write the complaint for them. Complainants can use advocates to complain on their behalf.
  • Accessibility information is available on the website.
  • RA highlighted that complainants can come visit the Ombudsman’s office or get in touch at any time, our staff are always happy to help.

4.2. Justice for complainants

  • Accountability Scotland feels ADR (specifically mediation) should replace judicial review, as this is too expensive. RA highlighted that the judicial review process is currently the appropriate route to review the lawfulness of a decision or action made by a public body. Where members of the public consider that an alternative process would be more appropriate, they may raise this through elected parliamentary representatives. SPSO have no control over this system.
  • RA noted that over half of our recommendations relate to service improvements. As mediation is confidential, this may hinder improvement to services.
  • Accountability Scotland referenced a few cases were complainants had not received justice. Service improvements are important however, they do not bring the complainant justice.

4.3. Points to note:

  • RA could not comment on specific cases during the meeting, as this was not appropriate. RA stated she would not comment on historical cases or on any remarks made by Jim Martin, the previous Ombudsman.
  • However, RA again welcomed Accountability Scotland to bring any current cases to her attention.