Croydon Council experienced a 150 per cent increase in complaints to the Local Government Ombudsman last year, but tonight has tabled a report that recommends a pat on the back for Nathan Elvery, Sara Bashford and Dudley Mead
Taberner House’s (unwanted) claim to having more spin than Zanussi gets another boost tonight when the council’s standards committee meets and will review a report that shows that complaints in Croydon have soared by 150 per cent in the past year.
The standards committee is charged with making sure that issues of probity are properly managed, for both staff and councillors.
According to the council, “The standards committee is responsible for promoting and developing standards of conduct and ethical governance across the council and to consider breaches of the Members’ Code of Conduct. The Committee meets regularly to consider reports on matters of probity and ethics regarding Members of the Council and officers”.
It is not usually the sort of committee work that attracts much attention. Until now.
The members of the standards committee, as appointed last May, are Eddy Arram (2012’s Croydon Mayor – as was first reported by Inside Croydon last year), Terry Lenton and Donald Speakman (all Conservative councillors) and Timothy Godfrey, Raj Rajendran and Pat Ryan (all from the opposition Labour group).
To that extent, the standards committee is unusual, in that it is without any built-in majority for the ruling Tories. It is unusual in a further manner in having six seats for “voting independent members”: Andy Smith, Stephen Harrow, Velma McKenzie, Anne Smith, who is the committee chairman, Ashok Kumar and Grant Pereira.
These independent members have to apply for consideration for the standards committee and be interviewed. Not unusually for Croydon Council’s website, it is not a simple matter to find how they apply, whether they are required to re-apply annually, nor who interviews them and makes the selection.
Trying to find the minutes of the 2011 standards committee meetings is similarly verging on the impossible, while the annual report for 2010-2011 had, at the time of writing, yet to be posted on the council website, 11 months after it was submitted.
The last written report filed by the standards committee into a complaint about the conduct of a councillor was in December 2005. Judging by that, it would seem that Croydon’s 70 councillors are all faultless, personable, polite and respectful of local residents, who always respond in a timely and helpful manner to any correspondence which they receive.
Even trying to find the report for tonight’s meeting on the council’s website was less than straightforward. To save Inside Croydon‘s loyal reader at least 15 minutes of possibly fruitless Googling, we offer a link to the report here.
As if to underline how important the standards committee is to Croydon, its work is the responsibility of not one, but two cabinet members: Inside Croydon‘s old friends, Sara “Book Token” Bashford (wearing her customer services hat), and Cuddly Dudley Mead (because of his iron-tight grip on the council’s finances).
It is worth noting here that Bashford does some part-time work as a local constituency assistant for Gavin Barwell MP. Where she is an office colleague of standards committee member Arram. So no potential conflict of interest there, then.
Alice in Wonderland world
The standards committee is important because it discusses issues including reports that deserve a wider airing, such as Inside Croydon’s recent news about the high level of complaints filed about Croydon Council.
According to the report put forward for tonight’s meeting by the “complaints management” team in the “department of corporate resources & customer services” – meaning, ultimately, Croydon Council’s in-house psychologist, Hayley Lewis – the “corporate priority” to be considered is: “Delivering high quality public service and improving value for money”.
The report states: “The way in which complaints are managed and help to drive service improvements plays a key role in Croydon’s drive to be an excellent authority which delivers both a positive customer experience and value for money.”
The council’s targets are “Increase satisfaction with local public services” and “Perception of value for money from council services”.
So how is Croydon Council doing?
Well, the report to the standards committee has a single recommendation. Namely:
“That the Committee notes the continuing work of the Department of Corporate Resources and Customer Services (CRCS) to reduce complaints and improve complaints management across the department and the wider organisation.”
Lewis Carroll could not have drafted a more misleading phrase for the Alice in Wonderland world of Croydon Council.
It goes on to report that “only” 411 first level complaints were received by council departments in the first three-quarters of 2011 (compared to 482 in the previous year). That still works out at 45 complaints about Croydon Council services every month.
The report then goes on to brush away the 150 per cent increase in complaints about Croydon Council being taken to the Local Government Ombudsman, because “it is important to note that this is in line with a national trend for increases in ombudsman complaints”. So that’s all right then.
The report doesn’t actually say what the complaints are about, but it does say that in the resources and customer services department, which is headed by Nathan Elvery, the main subject of complaints over the last five quarters is “quality of service”. Or, presumably, the absence thereof.
Even Croydon’s award-winning benefits service received 97 complaints during the first three-quarters of 2011-2012. But that was a decrease of 16 per cent on the same period in the previous year.
In the main, it seems, complaints to the council concerned similar themes to the previous year:
• Inadequate letter/response
• Entitlement queries
• Customer service
The other bit of that division, the revenue services, received 178 complaints during the same period. This was a decrease of 24 per cent when compared to the same period in 2010-2011 (when 235 complaints were received). Most of the complaints concern similar themes. These include:
• Recovery action
• Inadequate letter/advice
• Customer service
The report itself is not very “customer focused”, in that it is written in a form of council acronym-ese to make it a struggle even for councillors to understand, let alone members of the public, including even the independent people on the committee.
Councils face serious financial penalties if complaints are upheld, so any increase in complaints to the Local Government Ombudsman is not good.
Perhaps conveniently, the report doesn’t analyse where the complaints are coming from – so it is not possible to consider who it is who is doing the complaining, even in general terms such as where in the borough they live.
There could also be issues about gender, age, ethnicity. Surely, the council should be trying to get behind these figures if they are really serious about improving services?
Or is the council happy to run the risk of a yet further complaint, to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission?
- Inside Croydon: brought to you from the heart of the borough, free of charge, an independent voice standing for freedom of speech for the people of Croydon
- Snow patrol: council demonstrates some true grit (insidecroydon.com)
- Council complaints? Croydon makes it into worst 10 (insidecroydon.com)
- Mead says he’s “proud” of Croydon’s £50m uncollected tax (insidecroydon.com)