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The Ombudsman complains

By guest blogger JEF SMITH

One Saturday night last summer my wife and I stayed in a hotel in a mountainous area of France. It had been a warm day so, as usual, we opened the bedroom window before going to bed. A few minutes later we closed it again, having discovered that the adjacent field was occupied by a herd of cows, each wearing a clanging bell; suffering a stuffy atmosphere was clearly the less worse option to a sleepless night.

But did we, as properly critical customers should have done, phone Reception to protest? No, we didn’t. And would we, if they have declined to have the cows removed to alternative pasture, packed our bags and left? Again, no. We didn’t even fill out a complaint form the next morning, by which time, after a reasonable night’s sleep and a decent breakfast, the tinkling bells had mellowed into a less objectionable element of an otherwise delightfully bucolic setting. But neither did we extend our stay, and we certainly won’t be going back to that hotel. So what use will the hotel management or the French tourist authorities be able to make of our non-existent feedback? Obviously nothing.

I was reminded of this incident on reading a recently published document from the Health and Social Care Ombudsman. In the year 2018/19, there were 3,070 complaints and enquiries about adult social care, with 435 of those coming from self-funders. The response of Ombudsman Michael King to these figures is to express concern that “the volume of complaints from people who pay or arrange for their care privately has remained static, despite the area already being under-represented in the work we do”.

Mr King is rightly worried that many care consumers are reluctant to express criticism. The reasons are well known. Most people in care homes have severe disabilities or a serious illness or both. Nervousness or confusion may make them poor communicators. They are naturally reluctant to offend the people looking after them and on whom they have to rely, even if there is cause for concern. Nor are their friends or relatives, if they have any, necessarily in a better position to complain; they too may be fearful of upsetting a precarious arranged care package and, perhaps wrongly, anxious that their loved ones could be victimised or even evicted. So it is proper, as Mr King goes on to comment, that “It is vitally important care providers let people know about their rights to bring their complaints to us”. Service users should know about the routes to making complaints and not feel intimidated about using them.

But there is a more benign explanation of the Ombudsman’s findings. It is possible that managers of homes are getting better at handling complaints internally so that there is no need for them to escalate to the Ombudsman; this would surely be a welcome trend. Better still, it could be that services overall are improving, so that fewer people feel the need to complain at all, which would also be good. We are back to the familiar question: does a low volume of complaints bear witness to a high level of consumer satisfaction in the quality of the service or to the reluctance of consumers to speak out in the face of intimidation? It is time for this issue to be the subject of serious research rather than mere prejudicial rhetoric.

For the time being, I reserve judgement on whether the Ombudsman is right to deplore the slow flow of business from self-funders. And I am still contemplating my own reluctance to protest more forcefully about noisy French cows.

  • The CT Blog is written in a personal capacity – comments and opinions expressed are not necessarily endorsed or supported by Caring Times.

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