Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Persisting to apply common sense

Although I am no longer a member of the London Borough of Hounslow's Executive, as Leader of the Community Group I naturally keep a keen eye on the recommendations that come forward for approval. One which caught my eye prior to last night's meeting was proposed by the Deputy Leader of the Council and Executive Member for Complaints Mark Bowen and was entitled Dealing with Abusive, Vexatious or Persistent Complainants.

Now it hopefully goes without saying that if a member of the public is abusive towards officers of the local authority, or makes complaints which are clearly vexatious, there must be a point at which we can reasonably terminate our dealings with such a complainant. Our officers should not be expected to put up with abuse, insults or obscenities, and we make no apology for protecting them from such. Most large organisations have a policy of this kind, and much of the report which was brought to Executive concentrated on ratifying what was essentially the obvious and the indisputable.

However my attention was drawn to the reference to "Persistent Complainants", as this as a concept is not so easy to define. A complainant might, for instance, make the same complaint repeatedly despite it being self-evidently unreasonable or not upheld following a proper investigation. It is right that at some point we as organisation need to be able to say that enough is enough and discontinue a conversation that has clearly run its course.

On the other hand a persistent complainant could of course be someone who makes a series of different but nonetheless valid complaints, possibly acting on behalf of a residents' group or civic society. Or a person who, having not received a proper answer to a first complaint, pursues the matter in the hope of achieving appropriate closure.

One fairly recent example of the latter was a correspondent from the Mogden Residents' Action Group (MRAG), who had to ask a question of a senior officer thirteen times before he would provide a substantive answer. Even after councillor intervention the officer continued either to evade the question or, on other occasions, to ignore it completely. Under such circumstances the MRAG representative could not in all good sense be labelled a persistent complainant and cut adrift from the process - indeed the officer should have been disciplined by his seniors, who had been copied in to most of the correspondence.

Councillor Bowen, probably more than any other elected member, is a tenacious advocate of the member-led council. Nevertheless even the most competent batsman can be bowled out as a result of a momentary lapse in concentration, and so my ICG colleague Councillor Jon Hardy proposed an amendment to the recommendation which ensured that the relevant ward councillors, together with the Lead Member himself, would be given prior notice before the extreme and, I would hope, exceptional step of discontinuing communication with a complainant would be taken. The amendment was accepted.

To make doubly sure - and I hope I am not breaching any confidences by sharing this - I contacted Councillor Bowen this afternoon and he agreed with me that this power would not be allowed to be misused to silence genuine complainants, even those whose correspondence is frequent or challenging.

So, anybody within the organisation who might have had ideas about using the approval of this report against community activists and representatives of such groups as MRAG or The Isleworth Society (TIS) would do well to disavow themselves of them right now. To do so would effectively be a declaration of non co-operation with the Community Group and as such an unacceptable challenge to the authority of the coalition administration.

This recommendation was a sensible one, but requires sensible implementation. My colleagues in the community can be assured that for at least as long as we have anything to do with it this principle will be applied at all times.


tucker said...

Perhaps the officers know that MRAG is an ICG front group and treat them with the contempt they deserve!

Councillor Phil Andrews said...


I'm guessing you are the chap from a far off borough who has spoken of setting up a rival organisation exclusively for residents in the vicinity of Mogden who support or are members of the Labour Party?

If so, no change there.

MRAG is open to all residents and was until recently chaired by a prominent local member of the Liberal Democrats. The bad old ways are gone, friend.

Obi said...

I'm glad you intervened Phil because it sounded like a total and
utter cop-out.
The reason why certain people 'become' persistant complainants is that their intitial complaints aren't dealt with properly in the first place !
Some officers can be extremely unhelpful at times, lacking any real empathy or insight into people's problems and appearing not to care.
Indeed there seems to be an onerous burden placed upon complainants to present a 'perfect' argument detailing exactly why the council HAVE to deal with their problems.
The old adage "following the path of least resistance" seems to prevail and unless you're aware of what the council are obliged to do and bring this to their attention, chances are you'll be fobbed off !

Meek (and waiting to inherit the earth) said...

Having read Cllr Bowen's original piece, your piece and his subsequent addendum, I still can't understand WHY he feels council officers need to be 'protected' in this way with official legislation.
Clearly, it is not in any complainants best interests to be abusive/aggressive from the outset and I'd suggest that very few are.
They want their problems dealt with and realise that a poor attitude will probably be looked upon unfavourably.
No, the antagonism arises when people become aware that officers paid good money to serve them are just leading them a merry dance, and under the circumstances, can you blame them ?
Yourself and Cllr Bowen have spoken of shocking cases of misconduct you have both witnessed at first hand.
What sanctions, if any, were imposed on those particular officers ?

Councillor Phil Andrews said...

@ Meek

Which cases of misconduct are you referring to please?

Meek (and not long to wait now) said...

Maybe I was dreaming, but in your blog article: Persisting To Apply Common Sense (15 July) - the paragraph beginning "One fairly recent example....."
Similarly, in Cllr Bowen's blog article: Council Executive Meeting Earlier This Week (18 July) - the paragraph beginning "Item 3 was in my name....."

Both these passages appear to contain references to unidentified council employees being unhelpful/obstructive to members of the public and judging by the details you were both able to give, it is not unreasonable to assume that you were both closely involved in these cases.
Consequently, you must have both been aware of which particular officers were clearly failing in their duty to serve the public and surely you reported them to their superiors ?

Hanging Around said...

Ghosts of Hounslow Town Hall past
Fine men and women of old Treaty Road
What think ye of your modern contemporaries ?
Transient mercenaries with no real interest in their jobs
Manning departments operating at their own convenience
Blind leading the blind
The possibilities are endless
Spirit away 115 grand as easily as 115 paperclips
Would it have happened in your day ?
Did it happen in your day ?
Has someone got 115 paperclips hidden under their floorboards ?