COVID-19 update

Our office is currently not open to visitors. We are responding to emails and are operating a limited telephone service for complaints related enquiries. Our Scottish Welfare Fund review service is available by telephone as normal.  Please read our information for customers and organisations

COVID-19 update for public service organisations

While our offices are closed, we respond to emails and are available to talk to public bodies by phone or online meetings wherever possible.

We recognise that the pressures put on public services by the COVID-19 pandemic are still very real, and that organisations are continuing to adapt as the situation evolves. We understand that public bodies have to prioritise resources, and will continue to do so as lockdown is eased. We are committed to supporting public service organisations during this time as best as we can.

However, it is important to highlight that it is a legislative requirement (under the SPSO Act 2002 (as amended)) for public bodies to comply with the SPSO Model Complaints Handling Procedures (MCHP). For licensed water providers who operate in Scotland, there is a legislative requirement to comply with the Statement of Complaints Handling Principles as approved by the Scottish Parliament. This means that public bodies cannot withdraw or suspend their requirement to accept complaints. 

Please find further information on what is expected from public services during COVID-19 in the drop-down menu below.

While we appreciate that there are resource pressures, public bodies must still follow the Model Complaints Handling Procedures (MCHP) as this is a legal requirement. You should continue to put complainants at the heart of the process and the organisation’s complaints handling procedure should be appropriately and clearly communicated, easily understood and available to all.

Complaints handling timescales

The five working-day and 20 working-day timescales for handling complaints still stand. However, it is worth remembering that the MCHP gives flexibility to extend the timescales with certain conditions, particularly in relation to communication.

Communicating delays
  • You should acknowledge complaints and inform complainants as early as possible if you need to extend the timescales, explaining your reasons and giving them a revised timescale for a response. Specifically:
    • If the timescale has been extended at stage 1, the response should be provided (or the complaint escalated) on day ten at the latest.
    • If a stage 1 complaint has not been closed within ten working days, it must be escalated to stage 2 for a final response.
    • If you need to extend the timescales due to the current situation, you should tell complainers why this is and what delays are expected.
  • It is helpful to include realistic and specific information about current timescales on the complaints section of your website and in automatic replies on complaint inboxes and/or standard-form letters.

    This information should not simply give the impression that every complaint will be delayed because of COVID-19, but should repeat the commitment to try to meet timescales while acknowledging that in some cases it can take up to ‘X’ days.
    At the same time this information should explain the specific reason for the delay (as below, Explaining delays), that you will keep complainants updated, and with what frequency.

Explaining delays

If the delay has been caused by the impact of the pandemic, it is not enough to simply say "because of COVID-19”.  While your explanation does not have to be long and detailed, you should provide brief details of the impact of the pandemic and why this applies to the specific complaint.

For example:

  • "Department X is under-resourced because of requirements to self-isolate so we cannot access all of the information we need to respond to you."
  • "Many of our complaints team are self-isolating so there will be a delay of X days in our response to you"

Prioritising complaints
  • You should make an early assessment of complaints so that those that can be responded to as normal, and those that are from vulnerable people or have strong public interest, are progressed with as little delay as possible.

While we understand that over the last year public bodies have made their own decisions about what work to prioritise at the time, we expect organisations now to have developed/be developing recovery plans for how to restore complaint handling services to normal and to communicate well. While SPSO will be realistic in how we consider complaints about delay, we would expect to see evidence of the good practice (as highlighted above), in particular plans for restoring services.

Do you need further advice?

If you have any questions in relation to complaints handling during COVID-19, about the implementation of the MCHP, or if you need any other advice, please do not hesitate to contact our complaints standards team.  

While our offices remain closed to the public, we do receive postal deliveries and new complaints. However, due to the impact on our resources at the start of the pandemic, there are significant delays in allocating complaints to complaints reviewers. 

We are assessing new complaints to identify complaints that relate directly to current service provision for vulnerable people, and those where we believe there is a real and present risk to public health and safety.

While we are prioritising ‘essential’ new complaints, we may need to contact your organisation for information or discuss matters with you immediately. Whilst we recognise continuing pressures on public services, equally we hope you will appreciate that if we make contact it is due to the urgent nature of the case and so would greatly appreciate your support in such instances.

As regards all other complaints, we are trying to progress these as quickly as possible as we recognise that they are important to both complainants and to public bodies, and their staff, being complained about. At the same time, we have been encouraging complainants to exercise patience and understanding if the service received falls below expectations or responses to complaints are delayed.

Our Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF) team is providing an essential service to people in need and hardship and is available by phone as normal on Freephone 0800 014 7299.

While we are continuing to deliver our SWF independent review service as normal, we appreciate there may still be increased pressures on local authorities. If your local authority is experiencing difficulties responding to our enquiries, please let us know immediately.  

While we are very sympathetic to the operational difficulties and pressures faced by councils, it is incumbent upon us to monitor how and where this impacts on the service and support provided to applicants, many of whom are vulnerable and may be at risk of that vulnerability increasing because of the impact of COVID-19. We will therefore continue to provide feedback on applications in line with our normal process where the SWF Statutory Guidance has not been followed or where we assess that improvements could be made.  

Our Independent National Whistleblowing Officer service is live since 1 April 2021. We are operating a free telephone advice line at the following time:

  • Monday, Wednesday and Friday 9am-1pm
  • Tuesday and Thursday 12noon-4pm

We are responding to all enquiries as usual, though there is currently no facility for those wanting to visit us in person.

NHS Scotland providers are expected to apply the National Whistleblowing Standards and relevant timescales.

Updated: October 4, 2021