East Ayrshire Council have said that they were wrong to say that the Scottish Public Service’s Ombudsman (SPSO) had given them free reign to dispense with a 20 day response rate to complaints because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The admission is related to a complaint about the Catrine Community Trust, specifically about the ongoing issue of the planning application to convert the CEVIC Centre in Catrine into a nursery, which we have covered in another article this week here.

In March 2020, Richard Stenlake submitted a complaint. Normally he would expect to receive a response within 20 days. Mr Stenlake did not receive a response until September 30.

On Monday, September 7, after pressure from the Save the CEVIC group the council issued a statement saying the delayed response time was “in line with revised arrangements put in place by the SPSO which effectively dispensed with the normal 20 working day timescale” due to the COVID crisis.

The SPSO contacted the council about this, saying that they did not have free reign to dispense with the 20 day response rate, but that there was some flexibility allowed.

The council has since issued a statement clarifying the position and apologising for the misunderstanding.

The statement is as follows:

David Mitchell, Chief Governance Officer, East Ayrshire Council said: “With regard to the previous statement issued by East Ayrshire Council on 7 September on matters relating Catrine Community Trust, it has since been brought to our attention that our statement does not accurately reflect the position of the Scottish Public Service’s Ombudsman (SPSO) and we wish to rectify our position.

“We issued a statement in response to a large volume of correspondence received from various representatives of the community of Catrine expressing their concerns in respect of matters pertaining to the actions of both the Council and the Catrine Community Trust.

“Matters have since progressed on a number of fronts and the Council continues to engage with the community representatives in order to address their concerns.  In particular, a substantive response has since been issued by the Council to the formal complaint referred to in the previous correspondence and there is ongoing communication with the Community with a view to agreeing mutually acceptable arrangements for a meeting between the relevant parties, which is currently proposed for 19 October.

“The Council has also confirmed that the related Planning application will not be presented for determination until both the meeting has been held and any and all actions that may be agreed at the meeting have subsequently been fulfilled.

 “Unfortunately, when issuing our original statement on 7 September, we inadvertently misstated the position of the office of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) in respect of the impact of the Covid pandemic on the ability of public authorities to deal with complaints within the usual timescales.

“We oversimplified the situation by stating “the complaint was received in final form in March 2020 and could not then be progressed due to the requirement for the Council to respond to the current global pandemic, in line with revised arrangements put in place by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) which effectively dispensed with the normal 20 working day timescale for a response to complaints due to the pandemic”.

“Thereafter, in response to subsequent media enquiries in respect of the same matter the Council issued a press statement which was entirely drawn from the content of the position statement. 

“Unfortunately that statement was unintentionally and inaccurately read as though the only reason the Council had not responded to the formal complaint earlier was based on a misunderstanding on our part of the position of the SPSO.

“The content of the press statement was then brought to the attention of the SPSO, who in turn quite understandably wrote to the Council expressing concern at the Council’s statement insofar as it inaccurately reflected the position of the SPSO.

“I wish to acknowledge that the position of the SPSO was regrettably misstated in both of the Council’s statements and on behalf of the Council, I apologise to all concerned for this unintentional error.

“I can clarify that the position of the SPSO, as stated in the guidance and information posted by the SPSO in March, was to recognise the burden that responding to the pandemic would place on public authorities and to remind them of the flexibility allowed within the model complaints process for public authorities to extend timescales where necessary subject to keeping complainants informed in accordance with normal good practice.

“As the SPSO has subsequently pointed out and as the Council fully accepts, reminding organisations of the flexibility they have is not the same as dispensing with timescales and the Council is accordingly happy to provide this further clarification and confirmation of the position.”