To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the suspension of all casework by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman between 26 March and 29 June due to the COVID-19 pandemic, what steps they have taken to ensure that complaints made during that period were handled in line with the Local Authority Social Services and National Health Service Complaints (England) Regulations 2009; and what steps they are now taking to ensure that complaints about adult social care are handled appropriately.
My Lords, it is essential that people can voice concerns about their care and have complaints properly investigated. The ombudsman is a vital part of that process. The ombudsman temporarily suspended its usual procedures to protect front-line services. It has now fully reopened and is working through complaints received during that pause. No one has lost their access to justice because of the pandemic and usual time limits on complaints have been eased to allow for this.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Can the Government confirm that they still intend to introduce a statutory appeal system for adult social care, as originally planned for in April 2020? If so, do they intend to reopen consultation on that process, given that this was last undertaken more than five years ago, and no response was published?
The noble Baroness is entirely right that in April 2016 we committed, in fact sheets about the Care Act, to introduce an appeals process. That is still on the horizon, but this is best placed as an overall reform of the social care system that puts it on a sustainable footing where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. We have, therefore, delayed the implementation of this appeal system until we can make it part of a larger commitment to reforming social care.
My Lords, I urge my noble friend to encourage his department to come forward with its plans for social care reform as soon as possible. How many complaints relating to Covid has the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman received since it reopened on 29 June?
Last week, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman indicated that it had had around 100 Covid-related complaints. The department is closely monitoring the situation, including through our normal safeguarding networks. The ombudsman has confirmed that the current level of complaints is no higher than normal. We will be making sure that there is no backlog that ticks up this number.
My Lords, with families now reluctant to send their loved ones into care and opting to look after them themselves, what measures are the Government taking to support the sector and ensure that existing residents are not traumatised by being forced to move home due to financial pressures forcing the closure of their current care homes?
No one should be under any pressure, financial or otherwise, to move unless they are absolutely determined to. I emphasise that anyone who has a complaint should complain either to the ombudsman or through the CQC and Healthwatch system. To encourage knowledge of and access to that complaints procedure, we have launched the “Because we all care” campaign, which is encouraging people to use the NHS and social care feedback systems in a way that captures the learnings from Covid during this difficult time.
My Lords, given the close relationship between social care and the health service, the Government initially agreed that they would combine the two ombudsmen—the PHSO and the one for local government and social care. That is desired by both ombudsmen. We have had a consultation and we have had the Bill, but we heard, on 9 September, that there are no plans in government to proceed with that merger. Will the Minister explain how on earth that can be in the interests of consumers, be they patients or clients?
The noble Baroness is entirely right. There are very good arguments for combining the two ombudsmen and that is recognised by both of them. However, the framework and structure for that kind of reform is best conducted when there is an overall reform of social care. The Government made it crystal clear during the election that they are committed to a major and significant overhaul of the social care system. That has been reiterated by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. When it happens, we will review the combination of those two ombudsmen, as the noble Baroness described.
Baroness Warsi? We will move on to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton.
My Lords, given the pattern and themes of complaints emerging during Covid, what will the role of the Health and Social Care Ombudsman be in the forthcoming inquiry into the pandemic? Will the Minister give a guarantee of full involvement of that ombudsman, given the evidence it can bring to the table?
My Lords, the nature of any future inquiry has not yet been defined. However, all parties will be taking learnings from Covid and bringing forward their lessons-learned experience. As the major regulator, the CQC will play a leading role in bringing together the data and information from the front line but, as the complainant of last resort, the ombudsman will also play an important role in that process by bringing insight from patients and those who have made complaints.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, indicated, in the context of Covid many families and patients will be looking to stay at home and receive private care there, for longer than they might have. The Minister referred to the “Because we all care” publicity campaign about the ombudsman and its services. However, the annual review of adult social care complaints called for mandatory signposting. Will the Government be introducing mandatory arrangements and rules to be followed by all private providers to ensure that the services of the ombudsman are signposted to people who may need them—not just a publicity campaign but clear direction and information being provided to everyone who might need it?
My Lords, I recognise that the ombudsman’s recent report on adult social care did call for a statutory requirement for signposting. We have worked substantially with the sector to improve signposting of the ombudsman and other routes of complaint. The commitment by CQC and Healthwatch to the “Because we all care” campaign is an important and effective measure to fill the gap and raise awareness of the complaints procedure. It is right to wait until we see the results of that campaign. We acknowledge the possibility of mandatory signposting but would like to see a voluntary and more effective marketing campaign work if it possibly can.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked. We now move to the second Oral Question.