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Making a complaint about social work or social care services

This advice applies to Scotland

Coronavirus - complaints about care

If you want to complain about social work or social care, use this page to check who you should complain to. You should usually raise your concerns with a staff member or manager first.

If you're complaining to the council, check their website for changes to the complaints procedure because of coronavirus. 

The Care Inspectorate is still taking complaints. Find out how to complain on their website. 

Who can complain

Anyone who receives, asks for, or is affected by a social work service, can make a complaint. For example if you live near a residential home, run by the local authority, and the way it provides its services is disruptive to you, a complaint can be made.

You can make a complaint if you are worried about someone because you don't think they are getting the help they need. You can even make the complaint anonymously. If you make an anonymous complaint it may only be investigated by the local authority if you have provided enough information to allow it to identify the person and the problem.

Right to make a complaint and confidentiality

You may be worried about making a complaint if the local authority is involved with your family for legal reasons, for example because someone has been at risk. You can make a complaint and you can ask for it to be kept confidential.

Many people may not be aware that they have the right to complain and might also be anxious about using it in case services are withdrawn.

If you think your complaint is going to be handled by someone who has important decisions to make about your family and you think they will judge your complaint unfairly you can contact the complaints officer instead. You can get more advice from a Citizens Advice Bureau.

Complaining on behalf of someone else and advocacy

You may want to complain about a service that is being provided to a relative or friend who is not able to complain themselves. You can still complain but you should get their consent to do so. If they can’t provide consent, because they are unable to make decisions for themselves, the complaint may still be able to be dealt with. A local authority can investigate the complaint but it may not be able to share the outcome because consent wasn’t provided in the first place. This ensures however that someone who might be in some kind of danger can still have the circumstances in the complaint investigated.

Your friend or relative may be able to make their complaint with the help of a trained advocate. There are advocates all over Scotland. You can check if there is someone available locally to help from the Scottish Independent Advocacy Alliance website.

You might find it helpful to get some advice about powers of attorney if your relative or friend‘s ability to take action themselves is deteriorating. You can get more advice from a Citizens Advice Bureau. Read more about managing affairs for someone else.

As a child or young person under 18 you are able to use the complaints process if you or your family are receiving services. If you are in the care of the local authority you should be given extra help to make sure your complaint is understood. It might be helpful to have an advocate to provide a young person with some support. 

Who to complain to and how to complain

You might know immediately who to complain to because you have a leaflet or other contract explaining how to complain. Most local authorities, and agencies it pays to provide services, have to publish and provide you with information about how to complain. Most local authorities have a complaints department or customer services department. The contact details should be clear on the website of the local authority. You can find your local authority on the Care Information Scotland website

The information provided about complaints should be available in a number of languages and in braille or on tape.

In some cases who to complain to may depend on what you are complaining about. This can be quite complicated to work out if services are provided by staff from several agencies who work together. These are called integrated services.

If your complaint is straightforward, for example, a social worker was meant to call to see you and didn’t keep the appointment, most staff in the social work department can take a note of this complaint for you. You could also choose to use a standard form on the local authority website to make your complaint.

You may be able to use a standard form on the website of the social provider to make your complaint if this is available. Every social care provider has to be registered with the Care Inspectorate and as a registered service it must have a complaints process.

If you are unclear about who to complain to, you can get more help from your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

If you don’t have access to a computer to use an online form you can write to the service provider and you should provide the following details:

  • your full name and address
  • as much as you can about the complaint
  • what has gone wrong
  • how you want the provider to resolve the matter.

You can find out how to complain about a social work service on the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman website.

What can the complaint be about

You can make a complaint about all aspects of a social work service including:

  • failure or refusal to provide a service
  • inadequate quality or standard of service
  • unhappiness at how the service is provided because of how it affects you
  • services and actions not matching what the local authority website says it will do
  • incompetence in communicating with you, for example, not calling back or writing when staff said they would
  • delays in providing something
  • how a member of staff talks to you or treats you.

You cannot use the complaints procedure if:

  • you want to claim compensation

  • you intend to take legal action against the service provider

  • the matter you want to complain about is already being discussed at another legal body, for example, the Mental Health Tribunal or the Children's Panel.

How is the complaint handled

Model complaints handling procedure

The SPSO has provided a model complaints handling procedure for all social work service providers. From 1 April 2017 this has to be used for all complaints made on or after this date.

Time limit: You have 6 months to take a complaint to the local authority. The 6 months time limit starts to run from the point you became aware of the problem. In some cases this may be the date on which a decision was taken or you were informed about it. In other cases it may be the date that something started or stopped because of a decision taken earlier.

You can find the model complaints handling procedure document provided to the local authorities and other organisations on the Valuing Complaints website .

Here is a summary of the procedure below:

Stage 1: Frontline resolution

Most staff can record a complaint that can be handled at the first stage. It might not be the person you speak to first who tries to deal with the problem. The main focus will be to try to resolve the complaint to your satisfaction. You should receive a communication about your complaint within 5 working days. If you are happy with the outcome the complaint is closed.

If you are not happy, or it is obvious that it is quite a complicated complaint, it can move to the next stage. For example if a member of social work staff failed to keep an appointment you might be happy if you get an apology and an offer of another appointment. However if the social worker has missed appointments several times and doesn’t have a good explanation then you might want to take your complaint on to the next stage.

Stage 2: Investigation

When a complaint moves to the second stage, you should receive communication within 3 working days to let you know that the complaint has been recorded. Staff will then investigate the situation and have to get back to you within 20 working days. If the situation is very complex or key staff are temporarily unavailable you might be asked to accept that it will take longer than 20 days for the organisation to decide what to do.

If you are happy with the decision reached the complaint is closed. If you are not happy you can take your complaint on to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO).

Scottish Public Services Ombudsman

When a complaint about a social work service reaches the SPSO it can look into:

  • service failure
  • maladministration
  • complaint handling by the social care organisation
  • professional judgement.

There are independent professional advisers who can assess what decisions were taken and what professional judgements were made. These specialists can decide whether or not the professional judgement made by staff was reasonable in the circumstances of the case.

Time limit: You have to submit your complaint to the SPSO within 12 months of you becoming aware of the issue you want to complain about.

Care Inspectorate

The Care Inspectorate inspects and reports on all care services registered with it. This means all care services including all types of day care for children and adults, visiting support services, and residential care for children and adults. It checks that the services all meet a set of national standards.

If you want to complain about a care service registered with the Care Inspectorate you can complain directly to it. You are likely to be encouraged by the Care Inspectorate to make your complaint to the service provider instead as there might be a better chance of solving your complaint at the local level. For example, if you wanted to complain about the catering in a care home it might be easier for the manager of the home to investigate what is happening in its kitchen rather than asking the Care Inspectorate to do this before the manager has had a chance to investigate first.

However if you are worried about making a direct approach to the organisation that provided the services, you can ask the Care Inspectorate to investigate the complaint and it will let you know the outcome.

You can check what information the Care Inspectorate provides about making a complaint on its website

The Care Inspectorate headquarters can be contacted at:

Care Inspectorate
Compass House
11 Riverside Drive

Tel: 0345 600 9527

Scottish Social Services Council

Complaints about staff

The Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) has a register of social service staff who work with the public. The following groups of care workers don’t have to register with the SSSC but, if they are employed, the agencies they work in do have to register with the local authority and the Care Inspectorate:

  • child minders
  • social work assistants (mostly local authority workers)
  • adult day care workers (except managers).

The registration of social service workers enables the SSSC to deal with any concerns regarding the fitness to practise of workers reported to it. A complaint about a member of staff can be made directly to the Council. The SSSC usually will only investigate a complaint about a member of staff when you are concerned about their ability to do the job safely and effectively. You can find out how to complain and what the SSSC can investigate on its website

The SSSC may want you to make your complaint to the local service that employs the worker but you don’t have to. If you are able to make the complaint directly to the worker's employer there may be a chance of resolving your complaint more quickly. For example, your social worker may have decided that you no longer need their help but you don’t agree. The staff member who manages the social worker in the local office is the person best-placed initially to look into your complaint.

If a complaint has been made to the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) about your conduct

If you have had a complaint made to the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) about your conduct it will be investigated. You may be called to a Fitness to Practise investigation hearing.

You can read about the Fitness to Practise process on the SSSC website. This includes a factsheet that explains what help is available to you, as well as a series of factsheets that explain the process from investigation through to outcome. You may also get help and advice from a trade union, if you're a member of one, or a solicitor. 

The public may be allowed to the hearing although the Chair of the hearing can decide to make it a private hearing. It is likely that witnesses will be called to provide evidence.

If your employer is holding a disciplinary meeting about your conduct you can prepare before hand. Read more about preparing for a disciplinary or dismissal meeting.

Complaints about health care and social care/social work services (integrated services)

Some health, social care and social work services in Scotland are provided by the local NHS board and local authorities working together, in what are known as health and social care partnerships (HSCP). There are 31 partnerships in Scotland. Most partnership areas have chosen a partnership model of members from both the NHS and the local authority sitting on an Integrated Joint Board (IJB). Highland region has a different model. If you live in Highland you should contact the authority. If you live anywhere else you should contact the primary service provider first who will be either the NHS or the local authority. Either should take the lead in handling your complaint.

You may have a complaint about social care (such as a care home or a community care worker) or a social work service as well as an NHS service.

The IJBs are responsible for ensuring that particular services are provided to the public by the NHS and local authority working together - known as "integrated services". You might need to provide consent for a complaint to be shared with another integrated service but it should be made clear to you who is investigating your complaint.

You should only receive one response about the complaint but you could receive two responses dealing with different aspects of the complaint and this should be clearly explained. 

Complaints about services provided by care homes and care services

All registered care services must have a complaints procedure. They should clearly state what their complaints procedure is in their service users' guides or brochures. The way you might want to handle your complaint will depend on what your complaint is about.

If you want to complain about the way a care home is being run and how you have been treated you should complain to the care home first but you can also complain to the Care Inspectorate.

If you want to complain about decisions made by the local authority about what financial help you are entitled to, to pay your care home fees, you should use the model complaints procedure.

If you have a serious complaint to make about any of your money going missing from the care home or abusive care of any kind you should get advice from a Citizens Advice Bureau but you should contact the local authority social work services to ask for the matter to be investigated.

Problems with some complaints

You might be considering taking legal action about the issue you could complain about. You probably need to get some advice before you start legal action. It is very unlikely that if you make your complaint you will receive any financial compensation from using the complaints process. Taking legal action could be costly but it will depend on your circumstances.

Complaints about social work reports for official bodies

Most social workers have to write official reports for legal bodies, such as the Childrens’ Panel or the Mental Welfare Tribunal. If such a report is due to be presented at a meeting of the legal body you cannot use the complaints procedure if you are unhappy with the report. You can complain about the report at the meeting of the legal body.

Closure of social care services

Sometimes decisions are taken to close services. You can complain about this to the care provider or the local authority if it is a local authority service. You can use the model complaints process to start your complaint. You should explain how the closure of the service affects you.

Complaints when you are under statutory powers of the local authority

You might be receiving services from a social work or social care organisation because you have to. In these circumstances you may feel it is difficult to make a complaint because you are worried you will lose the services that you need or the people providing them might provide an even worse service if you complain.

The model complaints procedure should provide you with an opportunity to make a confidential complaint. You have the right to complain if you are unhappy with a service and if your complaint is a serious one about someone’s behaviour towards you it could go straight to an investigation by a senior member of staff or the Scottish Social Services Council. 

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