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Aquila House - HBC headquarters from which the complaints policy is administered (photo: Bernard McGinley).

Aquila House – HBC headquarters from which the complaints policy is administered (photo: Bernard McGinley).

Council’s ‘refreshed’complaints policy raises concerns over fair treatment of critics

Hastings Borough Council has expanded its powers for dealing with complainants who are judged to be excessively persistent or vexatious. While powers for dealing with excessive complaints are necessary, there are concerns that the council may also use its powers against those lodging well-grounded but inconvenient or embarrassing complaints. Nick Terdre reports.

According to the draft minutes of the Cabinet meeting on 6 June – the first since the local elections in May – the decision to ‘refresh’ the corporate complaints policy was prompted by a rise in the level of “persistent/vexatious complainants” since the previous system was introduced in 2014. These complainants were “absorbing a significant amount of officer time in dealing with cases that the council feels have already been addressed.”

Under the new policy, which came into force the following day, complainants identified as persistent and/or vexatious can be subject to various restrictions. These range from being subject to time limits on phone conversations and personal contacts, having to communicate through one medium only, such as email or telephone, or with one designated officer only, to having one’s email address blocked, not being able to discuss council decisions on complaints and having acknowledgement of complaints delayed by up to several weeks.

“There is nothing sinister in this,” council spokesman Kevin Boorman told HOT. “The vast majority of complainants won’t be affected by the changes, and we continue to welcome complaints – they help us identify problems, and put them right.

“However, a very small number of people are making the same, or almost identical, complaints to a large number of different people here, on the same issue. One system will allow us to have a more consistent approach to complaints, and allow us to identify vexatious and persistent complainants.” The complaints system has several checks in place, Mr Boorman said, and the decision to deem a complainant vexatious or unreasonably persistent is only taken after some time, and at the most senior level.

A software programme known as Firmstep will be used for monitoring complaints and complainants. No complainants have yet been judged persistent or vexatious; anyone who is will be informed, but their identity will not be made public.

Extreme cases in which complainants are abusive or threatening towards officials or councillors can be referred to the police – this is unaffected by the revised policy. Mr Boorman acknowledged that there were instances when the police had been notified of particularly threatening comments, but said he was unaware of police taking action against any complainants in recent times.

Council officials will be responsible for deciding if a complainant is to go on the list as persistent and/or vexatious, and how long they will be treated as such. But what about cases in which reasonable complaints do not receive a reasonable reply? When failings in practice or procedure are pointed out but officials decline to acknowledge them?

The lack of independent adjudication raises the concern that officials will be acting as judge and jury when it comes to complaints that they have acted in violation of their own rules and procedures. This is very much at the heart of the Rocklands case, in which critics claim to have identified various irregularities in council dealings with the caravan site owners in the Country Park.

The Save the Ecclesbourne Glen group has been trying to get the council to sort out these issues for several years. To begin with, its approaches were well received but particularly since the death of former council leader Jeremy Birch, relations have deteriorated, and the group may be in line for being judged ‘persistent and vexatious’. “What slowly transpired as we went along is that we began to feel that we were being strung along, we weren’t being given full data, our concerns weren’t being listened to,” says SEG representative Chris Hurrell.

Initial meetings were friendly, but after a while SEG found itself being refused information which it had reasonably requested. It resorted to making requests under the Freedom of Information Act, but every such request was rejected on one ground or another. “Basically the FOI Act is, I believe, being abused by HBC, they don’t return any information whatsoever,” Mr Hurrell told HOT. “Nevertheless we were still on reasonable terms until about the end of 2014, we were praised by the Cabinet, praised by Birch, but something clicked in early 2015 when they were trying to close us down because we were still being persistent and…had the temerity to take the case to the local government ombudsman.

“We believed that if we provided accurate evidence, HBC in their role as protector of the Country Park and planning would deal with the issues appropriately. Our retrospective position now is that we believe they never had any intention of doing anything of the sort, that the whole point was to minimise the impact and cover up the mistakes they had made.”

The ombudsman’s report, which is expected some time after July, will be an interesting test case for the way the council deals with critics who refuse to go away – he may decide that SEG has been vexatious, or he may decide that it is the council whose behaviour has been unacceptable.

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Posted 10:49 Saturday, Jun 18, 2016 In: Home Ground

3 Comments

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  1. chris hurrell

    Excellent article.

    These measure will make it even more difficult to hold HBC accountable for its many mistakes.

    HBC routinely abuse the Freedom of Information Act to prevent individuals and campaigning groups having legitimate access to council documents and correspondence.

    This new complaints policy is a further step to shut down all legitimate public queries into HBC.

    HBC now have further powers to dismiss complainants (either campaign groups or individuals) as vexatious and effectively blacklist them. Rather than address the many organisational and managerial issues that HBC they have decided to deal with the symptoms rather than the causes. HBC prefer to blame the public for daring to question and criticise the actions of our unelected and unaccountable officers.

    Nothing has changed since the Rocklands debacle it is business as usual and all supported by our councillors who have completely failed to hold our officers to account.

    It is feared that this new policy will be used to blacklist those deemed to be persistent or vexatious and could be used to silence legitimate campaigning groups such as Save Ecclesbourne Glen. HBC have focused on silencing legitimate complaints rather than focusing on providing an improved service. The lack of any independent arbiters is of special concern. HBC officers will be judge and jury.

    The emphasis in the Cabinet briefing paper was on controlling and blacklisting persistent complainants rather than on the merits of an integrated I.T system.
    The implementation of a proper integrated I.T system for recording complaints should allow better cross departmental integration and reduce time spent on complaints. It is hoped that HBC will make use of the I.T systems ability to publish all details of complaints and their progress to the public on the web.

    It is surprising that HBC have not had such an I.T system in place long before now. Such systems have been in existence for at least the last 20 years and it is hard to understand why HBC have taken so long to implement such a system.

    One of the issues raised by the Rocklands debacle was the failure of Planning and other departments to follow up on complaints of unauthorised works and tree felling. Had their been a proper system in place it is possible that the glen could have been saved from the damage inflicted on it by Rocklands.

    Comment by chris hurrell — Wednesday, Jun 22, 2016 @ 12:54

  2. Heritage

    Once again an excellent and informative article you would never see in the local paper. In fact talking on that point I did ask them why they had not covered this significant action by the council and also the appeal decision on the Rocklands Bunker. The paper told me they were not aware of the council meeting and did not know there had been a decision made by the Planning Inspector.

    Thank goodness for the Hottie. Good quality articles and often subjects missed by the local rag.

    On the subject of this “Firmstep” action by the council to effect some sort of control on we who file complaints. Have they ever sat and thought out why there are such a volume of complaints. Obviously not. In their effort to control us masses they find this Orwellian (1984) big brother control system. When it comes to Public Relations, lets face it HBC’s ability here is pretty appalling. Yes the Rocklands fiasco has generated a lot of complaints, questions and grief for the council. Something they entirely created following the disaster with the landslip all leading back to historic situations connected to that caravan site. And of course the infamous BUNKER.

    Comment by Heritage — Monday, Jun 20, 2016 @ 11:47

  3. barney

    Excellent article – and there is a very serious issue which needs addressing here: why didn’t our so called ‘local’ paper, the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer, report this extremely worrying pronouncement? They also failed to publish a single word about the Rocklands Appeal Hearing where the Inspector has decreed that the ‘bunker’ can remain in situ subject to some very minor ‘adjustments’.

    Without the excellent reportage/articles/alerts by the Hottie much important news would never be made public. What a pity our local paper fails so abysmally in this public service.

    This latest move by Hastings Borough Council is yet another nail in the coffin of democracy in this town. It should not be without vehement protest. If maladministration is revealed, it cannot be hidden under the guise of vexatious complaints.

    Comment by barney — Monday, Jun 20, 2016 @ 10:22

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