The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) has published updated model complaints handling procedures (MCHPs) for public sector organisations, including a specific model for registered social landlords (RSLs). This article aims to highlight some of the key amendments that RSLs should be aware of.
The updated MCHPs were published under section 16B(5) of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002 on 31 January 2020 to give RSLs time to implement any changes by April 2021. The SPSO has stated that, following consultation, the MCHPs have been updated to:
- standardise the core text across all of Scotland's public services (to remove minor inconsistencies in how the MCHP operates within different sectors), while retaining individualised sector-specific content and examples in each version; and
- update the MCHPs in line with:
- feedback from organisations under jurisdiction (via a consultation survey and individual feedback from contacts with SPSO);
- issues identified in casework; and
- recent research and good practice in relation to using alternative resolution approaches, promoting positive complaint behaviours and improving access to complaints for vulnerable groups.
Structure and detail
One of the most notable amendments to the MCHPs is the amended format in which they are drafted. The new format is split into five parts with appendices incorporated at the end of each part, rather than at the end of the entire document. There is also a separate implementation guide.
Generally, the MCHPs contain much more detail that the previous version. For example:
- the MCHPs still contain the same three stages (frontline resolution; investigation; and independent external review). However, each stage includes further examples and guidance for staff and the process is much more detailed regarding each step, and in particular when engaging with the complainant;
- there is a specific section on expected behaviours, which links to a RSL's unacceptable actions policy. This wording is clear in telling staff and customers what sort of behaviour is expected of them;
- the MCHPs clarify that an employee who receives services from a RSL may submit a complaint regarding those services as a member of the public and such complaint will be dealt with under the MCHPs; and
- the list of examples of complaints and non-complaints has been expanded and there is further clarification on how complaints may be made.
The updated MCHPs also have new sections on complaints about contracted services, complaints and other processes (such as disciplinary and whistleblowing) and what happens when the MCHP does not apply.
The new MCHPs clarify that all staff within RSLs must be given specific training on the RSL's complaints handling procedures as part of their induction. Further, staff must be given refresher training as required "to ensure they are confident in identifying complaints, empowered to resolve simple complaints on the spot" and are familiar with how the complaints handling procedure is applied by their RSL.
The responsibilities section also contains suggested wording regarding the RSL's HR / training officer ensuring that such training takes place.
The changes under data protection law have been referenced in the new MCHPs. The confidentiality section has been extended to make specific reference to RSLs' obligations under applicable data protection legislation.
In particular, RSLs are encouraged to include examples regarding sharing of information relating to complaints with specific reference to the Information Commissioner's Office data sharing code of practice and in order to ensure transparency, which is one of the key principles under the data protection legislation.
RSLs will receive personal data when handling complaints and so will need to ensure that such personal data is handled lawfully under data protection legislation. As well as receiving the personal data of the complainant, there may also be other individuals' personal data involved – for example, where a tenant makes a complaint about their neighbour.
The updated MCHPs do take such circumstances into account as the wording provides guidance on what factors RSLs should consider in respect of confidentiality and data protection. This includes, for example, what to tell a complainant whose complaint contains the personal data of another individual without obtaining consent.
Further, there is now wording included to confirm that requests made under the data protection legislation and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (which was extended to RSLs in 2019) will not be handled under the MCHPs.
The section on "Supporting the customer" remains but the text in this section encourages RSLs to include further detail and examples around not only compliance with legal duties in respect of equalities, but recognising that there may be further barriers to raising complaints.
There is example text included where RSLs specifically refer to legislation. However, there is a reference to the "Equality (Scotland) Act 2010", which does not exist. RSLs should refer to the "Equality Act 2010" if using this text.
Overall, the updated MCHPs do not, in our view, introduce many significant changes that will greatly impact on the complaints handling practices of RSLs. Instead, the new wording intends to provide further clarification on the process – both for RSLs and those seeking to make a complaint – and in particular, what is expected at each stage.
The MCHPs also seek to align how RSLs should handle complaints while complying with their other legal obligations, such as RSLs' obligations under applicable data protection legislation and the Equality Act 2010.
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If you have any particular concerns regarding complaints handling matters, please contact a member of our team.