Ombudsman's letter to Shirley : 1st October 2009
and a Note from the Save Old Town Library Campaign
Note from Campaign to Save Old Town Library : 05 October 2009
Anne Snelgrove MP kindly used her good offices to submit Shirley's 'dossier of complaint' to the Ombudsman in April 2009. We thank her for her efforts to follow the progress of the complaint.
As the situation with regard to Old Town Library and the other branch libraries has evolved, many documents were added to the complaint and copied to the Borough Solicitor.
We should point out that a full response to the complaint from the Council has, to date, never been received. The Council's preliminary response was brief and did not satisfactorily address the allegations in the complaint. A request for a further explanation from the Council has not to date been answered.
The Ombudsman is limited to what he may and may not investigate. As a citizen, one may report a criminal offence to the Police, even if one is not the most injured party. Unlike the Ombudsman, the Police do not require the individual to prove he has personally been assaulted for a squad car to be sent out. Similarly, I believe that a citizen should be able to flag up what he/she believes is maladministration in a council for the attention of the Ombudsman, with as much (or more) weight being given by the Ombudsman to the alleged maladministration than whether the complainant himself is affected by it to a greater degree than is the wider community.
For any citizen who is unhappy with his local council's behaviour, sadly there is no other recourse to justice but to the Ombudsman, except :
(i) Re. Libraries : a request to the Secretary of State to intervene under the 1964 Act which is extremely unlikely to be taken seriously;
(ii) A Judicial Review (far too expensive for the average person).
The existing situation does not encourage councils to behave transparently and to a standard that a citizen might reasonably expect.
In spite of the Ombudsman's disappointing decision, above, it has been salutory to learn how he functions and to follow a complaint through. It is worth understanding this process even before submitting a complaint to your council.
Letter from Ombudsman to S Burnham : 1st October 2009
The Oaks No 2
Westwood Business Park
1 October 2009
Our Ref: 09 001 216 B4/tc
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Dear Mrs Burnham
Complaint against Swindon Borough Council
Thank you for your recent email. I am sorry I have not been able to write to you before now about the investigation of your complaint.
I have considered all the information included in your email of 24 August 2009 and its attachments, as well as the information sent more recently, and I have reviewed the full file of documentation on the complaint. I understand that you continue to feel very aggrieved about the way the Council dealt with the proposed changes to the library service. But I remain of the view that it would not be appropriate for the Ombudsman to pursue investigation of your complaint.
I do not propose to comment point by point on your email of 24 August but will respond on what seems to me to be the most pertinent points. Can I first comment on a point in the final paragraph of your email. It is not for the Ombudsman to say whether or not the Council's actions are indicative of good administration. Our task is to investigate complaints to establish whether the individual, or group of individuals, making the complaint has suffered injustice as a result of maladministration. That is what I have been looking for in examining all the documentation on your complaint and it is why this letter is phrased largely in the negative. I have not seen evidence of fault causing an injustice which is personal to you.
As I said in my letter of 18 August, I have looked for evidence that you, as a regular user of Old Town Library, have been caused an injustice and I do not believe the evidence would support a conclusion that you have. The Ombudsman cannot investigate complaints which affect all or most inhabitants of a council's area which means that he cannot investigate a complaint about the way the Council dealt with the future of the library service in Swindon generally. To a large extent the issues you have raised, including those in your email of 24 August, do not affect you any differently than they do any other citizen.
The way in which the Council dealt with the report 'Value for Money Savings 2009/10' in February 2009 has not disadvantaged you, as a user of Old Town Library, because decisions made then were not implemented and further consultation was carried out. I have not seen anything to suggest that your probity has been called into question, by the Council or by anyone else, because you referred to this report in a public meeting.
The ERS report did not, as you have suggested, recommend that no decisions should be made on the future of the library service until the design and delivery of consultation exercises had been strengthened. The relevant paragraph (on page 4 of the report) refers to consultations that had been undertaken on the proposed closures and then makes a recommendation in respect of future consultations. So I remain of the view that the Ombudsman could not hold the Council at fault in making a decision on the proposed closures without undertaking another round of consultations.
I can see no grounds for the Ombudsman to recommend that your requests for a meeting with officers and councillors should be agreed. We could only do so if it seemed that the refusal of your request might be affected by some administrative fault and I can identify no such administrative fault.
While Wirral Council has decided not to proceed with library closures I cannot see that this binds Swindon BC in any way. The local enquiry, which has not yet been completed, might be relevant but that is not something which the Ombudsman can determine.
So I do not believe the Ombudsman will be able to help you and our file on your complaint will now be closed. I will inform the Council of this decision with a copy of the correspondence.