Public Services Management: Giving due credit: How should we be compensated for poor services? Paul Gosling reports

Dissatisfied customers of Marks and Spencer's can get their money back. But what about the unhappy user of a public service? Now that councils, health authorities and the Government have recognised the public as customer, should we be entitled to cash refunds if they fail to deliver the services we believe we have paid for?

At British Rail the answer is yes. But BR's circumstances are different as we are buying an easily definable product - a ticket. Critics of the Passenger's Charter compensation scheme add that the system is too complicated, and the standards too lax, for the refunds to mean very much.

British Gas credits customers pounds 10 if an engineer fails to meet an agreed appointment, which recognises the inconvenience and possible loss of wages. Leicester City Council is considering crediting tenants pounds 2.50 on their rent account, if an appointment is missed.

Lewisham, south London, has run a cash-back scheme on its refuse collection service for three years. Any householder whose bin is not emptied is entitled to a pounds 1 refund. Since the offer was initiated there have been 9 million collections and just pounds 70 paid out in compensation. The council says this reflects the 97 per cent satisfaction rating for refuse collection in a survey.

Albert Bishop, refuse and cleaning manager of the direct service organisation (DSO) says the scheme allows them to monitor their performance effectively and gives customers the opportunity to complain out of normal office hours. 'Our 'it's a deal' is an extension of the Environmental Protection Act, giving guarantees of our service standards. It's not a gimmick, it allows people to use it and it provides feedback for us.'

Islington, north London, has chosen to use service guarantees. Customers of the council's swimming pools are guaranteed to find their pool open at the advertised times, at 27 degrees C, the water clean and the bottom of the pool visible at all times. Should the council fail to deliver, vouchers for free swims are issued.

Other authorities have considered similar approaches and rejected them. Braintree council, Essex has been recognised as this year's 'Council for Quality' by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, and puts this down to an effective complaints procedure. Robert Atkinson, assistant chief executive of Braintree, says research shows users want service improvements, not compensation. 'We have a charter which sets out what customers can expect. We have had a complaints system for six years and we've considered compensation. We've tested the market with a customer panel, and they thought it was an unhelpful gimmick, but what they wanted to know was that their complaint had been dealt with. We do give financial compensation if they've suffered hardship, or for a journey taken to rectify a problem. We might write off a bill if the customer suffered unduly from negligence.'

One of the Audit Commission's performance indicators for councils asks: 'Does the authority have a written policy on remedies?' But a spokesman for the Commission says this should not be inferred as a preference for financial recompense rather than sorting out the cause of the complaint. 'We are not making hard and fast rules about how one local authority responds rather than another, providing they deal with the problem effectively.'

The National Consumer Council (NCC) is reviewing the range of charters issued by the public services and is drawing up a charter check- list. It is also involved with the Audit Commission and leading charter councils in a 'Charter Summit' in Leicester on Wednesday. David Leabeater, the NCC's senior policy and development officer, says: 'There are 30-plus charters across the public services and they are growing in number - for example, there is a patient's charter for England, and with a cascading effect, numerous local ones. Voluntary charters in local government often predated the Government's initiative. We are applying three principles to these charters: that consumers should be consulted; that they should provide information and accountability; and that there should be a system of redress.

'The impression I get is that some of the documents provide a lot of detail on how to gain access (to complaints procedures). Others have considerably less information. Consumers should be consulted about the complaints procedure. Is it user-friendly? What do people want?'

Organisations that are subject to an ombudsman who may make ex gratia payments should recognise this within their own systems, suggests the NCC. 'The local government ombudsman considers the amount of hassle citizens are put to,' Mr Leabeater says. 'That suggests, if it's good enough for the ombudsman it should be something others should consider.'

The Local Government Management Board has published a guide to complaints services and recognises that the question of financial compensation is something that councils should consider. Lesley Race, who wrote the guide, says: 'There is a tension between service provision and giving money away. In many services it is difficult to identify who the customer is, for example in education. Compensation is not as well developed as the complaints system. A lot of complainants say they want to make sure the same thing does not happen to others. An apology goes a long way.'

Ms Race suggests that some instances are more obviously appropriate for financial compensation than others. 'If the person has had detriment caused to them, or they have to pay out money themselves. The ombudsman can request payment in circumstances such as this, or for distress or suffering caused.'

Many of the councils are concerned that compensation can simply be an added burden on councils, making them less able to provide services effectively. It is an unease that is shared by all political viewpoints. Labour-controlled Leicester council referred to the originator of the Citizen's Charter, Dr Madsen Pirie of the right-wing think-tank, the Adam Smith Institute.

In arguing for the adoption of charters Dr Pirie wrote: 'Any compensation must be structured so that it does not simply come as an added burden on taxpayers . . . The object is to improve the public services by equipping citizens with rights of redress, not to open state coffers to potentially unlimited demand.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java,Artificial Intelligence)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Front-Of...

C++ Quant Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Java/Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

SQL Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

Day In a Page

Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
9 best steam generator irons

9 best steam generator irons

To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

‘We knew he was something special’

Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York