THE OMBUDSMAN charged with holding councils to account is considering dropping an investigation into whether it was ‘deliberately misled’ by Coventry council – despite admitting the authority had sent it “inaccurate, inconsistent and incomplete” information during its probe into council mistreatment of a charitable firm for disabled people.
The Coventry-based national Local Government Ombudsman office had ruled in 2014 the council had conducted a long-running ‘unreasonable campaign’ against the not-for-profit firm Open Doors Housing and Support Limited, inappropriately and repeatedly using safeguarding powers against it which the firm said amounted to a ‘witch-hunt’.
Following the then Ombudsman Dr Jane Martin’s damning finding of ‘maladministration with injustice’ against the council, the council last year paid a substantial sum in damages to settle the dispute out of court.
But we also reported Open Doors was initiating a fresh complaint to the Ombudsman’s office – using evidence which came to light from preliminary High Court proceedings – that the council had systematically misled the ombudsman in its investigations.
In a draft decision issued last month and seen by the Coventry Observer, the Ombudsman Michael King’s office states it had “challenged the inaccurate, inconsistent and incomplete information the council provided at the time.”
Yet the draft decision also states: “I intend to discontinue the investigation as it would be a disproportionate use of our resources to pursue this matter given the limited public interest grounds.”
It further explains this on the grounds of a lack of “very compelling allegations of deliberate obstruction” – which Open Doors strongly disputes with the evidence provided – and because the former senior Coventry council officer Simon Brake, who dealt with the ombudsman, had since left the authority.
Yet he still works in the public sector, as chief officer at Walsall Clinical Commissioning Group.
Both the council and Open Doors, based at Friars Road, Coventry city centre, have been invited to respond before the Ombudsman makes a final ruling.
One of Open Doors’ directors, John Kavanagh, said the draft decision raised major issues concerning the Ombudsman’s role of holding public bodies to account.
Open Doors is calling on the Ombudsman to issue High Court proceedings against the council for contempt of court, for obstructing its investigations.
Former ombudsman Dr Jane Martin had previously stated in a public report in 2016 concerning the London Borough of Lewisham: “When councils respond to us they should take the same care to give us complete and accurate information as they would in court proceedings. I take the matter seriously when councils don’t provide accurate and timely information and I believe it is in the public interest to highlight this case.”
The housing firm says it has provided the Ombudsman with compelling, detailed evidence for its claims.
Council chief executive Martin Reeves issued a formal apology to Open Doors in 2014 acting on the Ombudman’s instructions, following a series of Ombudsman rulings against the council on the matter.
As we reported, Open Doors had claimed it was ‘ostracised’ after it raised concerns about the council in 2006 at what the housing firm perceived as poor treatment of vulnerable people.
It alleged this escalated into a full blown ‘witch hunt’ in 2009 after the company restructured and increased rents paid via housing benefit paid by the council, which also grant-funded the firm to provide services.
Several safeguarding investigations followed, involving many council officers, which the ombudsman ruled were inappropriate, adding it was ‘hard to understand’ why they had taken place.
Mr Kavanagh said: “The Ombudsman’s draft conclusion that exposing and sanctioning the misleading of an Ombudsman’s investigation, which is the equivalent to misleading the High Court, is not in public interest will we believe not stand up to public scrutiny.
“During the course of the original investigations the organisation had brought their concerns to the attention of chief executive Martin Reeves on several occasions.
“What is particularly shocking is that these events overlapped the tragic death of child Daniel Pelka, amid failures in the safeguarding processes at the city council.
“This is a whistle-blowing matter concerning evidence that came to light during court proceedings.
“The city council then refused Open Doors’ request to bring the evidence to the attention of the Ombudsman and subsequently. They also then unsuccessfully attempted to block the Ombudsman from investigating. This is not an example of the council being open, honest and transparent as committed to by Mr Reeves after the Daniel Pelka tragedy.”
The council and Mr Brake declined to comment, while the ombudsman’s office says it does not comment on ongoing cases.