Authorities liable for contractors' errors

LOCAL authorities will continue to be held liable for compensation awarded as a result of maladministration, regardless of whether the pay-out relates to work which has been contracted out, the Commission for Local Administration has warned.

Commission solicitor, John Bash, says to avoid footing the bill for poor services provided by the private sector, council lawyers are advised to place an indemnity clause in contracts.

Bash, who has worked as solicitor to the Ombudsman's office since its formation in December 1974, says many councils are not aware of the threat posed by tendering.

He says that despite the fact that work is taken on by an external contractor, the council remains responsible for the service and, if a complaint is made by a customer, it must bear responsibility for the case.

This year's annual report shows that, in the year to March 1994, former commission chair Sir David Yardley, recently replaced by Edward Osmotherly, received 4,471 complaints of maladministration, and Bash says reports of dissatisfaction are rising.

With many blue collar services already carried out by the private sector, and the tendering of white collar work – starting with legal services – set to become compulsory by April 1996, Bash says councils should be aware that if compensation is awarded by the office, councils will pick up the bill while contractors will escape action.

"Contracting out makes no difference to the council's responsibilities. We've told authorities that this is something they have to bear in mind, especially with existing contracts," says Bash.

"There are high standards that we expect from the councils which we will expect from contractors, otherwise we will hold councils responsible for maladministration.

"To stop the problem, when they are drawing up contracts councils should tell contractors that the Ombudsman may be coming out to interview their staff and look at their papers.

"They should also provide for indemnity in all new contracts, saying that if the Omb-udsman asks for compensation because of the contractor's maladministration, that the organisation undertaking the work will have to pay," he says.