Understanding the barriers to accessing social care and social housing complaint systems for vulnerable and excluded people

by Carolyn Hirst (Independent Researcher, Hirstworks), Chris Gill (University of Glasgow), and Jane Williams (Queen Margaret University)

In our latest blog post we provide an update on a small scale research and knowledge exchange project we are currently undertaking which aims to explore the barriers experienced by social housing and adult social care complainants in England and Scotland is currently underway. It has been funded by the University of Glasgow Research Invigoration Fund and is being led by Carolyn Hirst (Independent Researcher at Hirstworks), with input from research colleagues Chris Gill (University of Glasgow) and Jane Williams (Queen Margaret University).

As well as providing a basis for future research, this project contributes to an ongoing process of knowledge exchange with policymakers, practitioners, third sector advice and advocacy bodies, regulators, commissioners and ombuds where knowledge is shared through our Transforming Complaint Resolution website.

The project has three elements. The first was a rapid desk-based scoping exercise to bring together the publicly available data on the demographic characteristics of people who raise complaints about adult social care and social housing and the research evidence on access to justice barriers in this area.

This scoping exercise has resulted in a short, policy focused scoping paper whose findings highlight the absence of publicly available demographic data and few explicit requirements to record and collect information on the characteristics of social housing and adult social care complainants. Some valuable data exists but this is scattered within and across the websites, reports and other publications of a wide range of service providers, government and non-governmental organisations (such parliamentary committees, the National Audit Office, Citizens Advice and Healthwatch), advocacy and advice organisations, ombudsmen, inspectorates and regulators.

Available research on the barriers facing social care and social housing complainants has found that barriers can be multiple with obstacles to accessing services being attitudinal, organisational, cultural and practical. Also, that barriers relating to disability, ethnicity, sexuality, communication impairments, poor mental health, homelessness and geographical isolation can all contribute to people being seldom-heard.

The bureaucratic barriers identified in available research include confusing terminology leading to misunderstandings on the difference between complaints and appeals. There is also a theme in social care research findings about barriers to do with the fear of raising concerns, including fearing retribution. And there is also a growing literature on digital barriers and on identifying groups at risk of exclusion from digital justice. The available research on vulnerable complainants, in general, highlights a tendency not to complain and a susceptibility to harm.

Identified policy issues on these barriers include the inclusivity of complaint process design, with questions as to whether existing complaints processes have inbuilt biases and injustices, with complainants being expected to assimilate into systems that do not meet their needs. There were also articulated policy and practice concerns around the use of language, such as the term ‘vulnerable’, which can be othering if it attaches labels to people and terms like ‘hard-to-reach’ can imply individual responsibility for a predicament.

The second element of the project involved discussion of the scoping paper findings at three 1.5 hour online workshops held in the last two weeks of June with invited expert stakeholders (one with advice and advocacy organisations, one with social care and social housing providers, and one with ombudsman, regulators and inspectorates). A future blog post will summarise the main findings from these events.  It is fair to say there was some lively debate over the lack of data and some of the challenges of addressing barriers to complaining. The research team would like to extend their thanks to all those who attended and for sharing their experiences.

The third element will be using the findings of the scoping paper and the workshop discussions to produce a briefing paper setting out key issues and recommendations for policy, practice and research. This briefing paper, due to be published by end August 2022, will be circulated to workshop participants and will also be available here on our Transforming Complaint Resolution website.

If you are interested in knowing more, please contact Dr Chris Gill at chris.gill@glasgow.ac.uk.

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