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Somerset County Council (18 016 382)

Category : Adult care services > Assessment and care plan

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 15 Jul 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss B complains the Council was wrong to cut her personal budget in half and has failed to deal properly with her financial assessment. There was no fault by the Council over its assessment of Miss B’s needs, which resulted in the cut to her personal budget, or over how it decided how much she has to pay for her care. But the Council was at fault for enabling Miss B to accrue more debts and for telling her it could not provide care until she agreed to pay off the debts. It needs to write off the debt and take action to prevent similar problems from happening again.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Miss B, complains the Council was wrong to cut her personal budget in half and only provide five hours of care a week, rather than the previous 10, and has failed to deal properly with her financial assessment.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have:
    • considered the complaint and the documents provided by Miss B;
    • discussed the complaint with Miss B;
    • considered the comments and documents the Council has provided in response to my enquiries; and
    • shared a draft of this statement with Miss B and the Council, and invited comments for me to consider before making my final decision.

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What I found

What happened

  1. Miss B has a diagnosis of “unspecified disorder of psychological development leading to significant anxiety symptoms”. A January 2016 review of Miss B’s needs refers to direct payments, managed by an agency, to buy 10 hours of support a week. Miss B was expected to use the funding to employ personal assistants to:
    • encourage healthy eating;
    • help with shopping;
    • encourage her to do house cleaning; and
    • help with financial management.
  2. In October 2017 Miss B’s personal budget was £173.94 a week. The Council’s records say she owed £4,207.00 in unpaid client contributions (£68.50 a week). This debt accrued in part because the Council paid her full personal budget into her direct payment account each week, rather than £105.44 (i.e. £173.94 less the client contribution of £68.50).
  3. The Council visited Miss B on 31 October to review her financial assessment. It assessed her as having to contribute £68.50 a week towards her personal budget. This was because her assessable income of £271.20 was higher than the amount allowed for weekly expenses of £202.50:
    • Council Tax £3.60
    • General living expenses £151.45
    • Night care allowance £27.45
    • Other (Disability Related Expenditure) £20.00.
  4. Miss B told the officers who visited her that her carers helped with cleaning, shopping and correspondence. The officers noted Miss B and her home were very dirty. She said she wanted the Council to review her needs.
  5. The Council reassessed Miss B’s needs in January 2019. The assessment says she had a large debt due to not paying her assessed weekly contribution. Miss B said she could not afford to pay £68.50 and offered to pay £10 a week. The assessment identifies these risks if Miss B had no support:
    • Accommodation – losing her tenancy;
    • Personal care- self neglect, skin care, low mood;
    • Nutrition – poor diet and finances due to over reliance on takeaway foods;
    • Financial – increasing debt, vulnerability to financial abuse;
    • Challenging behaviours – when access to shops denied, finances and debt management;
    • Pet care – possible tenancy breaches.
  6. The assessment identifies the need for support achieving these outcomes:
    • Managing and maintaining nutrition – 2 ½ hours a week to menu plan and batch cook a main meal;
    • Maintaining personal hygiene – 45 minutes twice a week to help shower;
    • Maintaining a habitable home environment – 1 ½ hours a week
  7. The assessment says they discussed options to meet these needs:
    • Community access – Miss B had not taken up recommendations made by Community Agents in 2017 and 2018, saying she would need a carer with her to manage anxiety;
    • Food shopping – deliveries and online shopping would meet Miss B’s wish to eat more healthily, she can use a microwave to heat food and use a taxi to access shops but was ordering takeaway food;
    • Debt management – Miss B was working with an agency to manage personal debts.
  8. The Council identified the need for a care and support plan aimed at developing skills and routines with five hours of support with: meal planning/preparation; personal care; and maintaining basic hygiene.
  9. The Council wrote to Miss B on 15 January. It said:
    • it would stop her direct payments as she was not using them to meet the needs it “had assessed as a priority”;
    • she had refused to pay her assessed contribution until it had reviewed her financial assessment;
    • the income and disability related expenditure chart completed accurately reflected her circumstances;
    • it could not take account of debt repayments or expenditure not directly related to disability;
    • it could not arrange care until Miss B agreed to pay her assessed charge and a repayment plan for the debt for the outstanding charge, both of which she would have to pay via a direct debit or standing order;
    • it was open to Miss B to arrange her own care and pay for it herself. It said it would still expect her to pay the arrears.
  10. The Council visited Miss B on 16 January and followed up the visit with a letter. This says it would stop her direct payments immediately. It said:
    • it had offered to commission five hours of care a week provided she paid her assessed charge; or
    • she could arrange care and pay for it herself.
  11. It noted Miss B wanted to source her own carer and would not pay her assessed charge. It sent her a form to ask for a review of her assessed charge. It told her the financial assessment:
    • takes account of the daily living component of a Personal Independence Payment but disregards the mobility component; and
    • takes account of disability related expenditure but not debt payments.

Is there evidence of fault by the Council which caused injustice?

  1. There is no evidence of fault in the way the Council worked out Miss B’s assessed weekly charge. It is in line with the Care and Support Statutory Guidance (Statutory Guidance). This is because the £151.45 allowance for living expenses takes account of:
    • the Government’s Minimum Income Guarantee of £91.40 for someone of Miss B’s age;
    • the disability premium of £40.35; and
    • the enhanced disability premium of £19.70.
  2. The Council has also taken account of Council Tax, a night care allowance and disability related expenditure. The Council is right to say it does not have to take account of debt repayments. They are expenses the Council can expect Miss B to cover from her allowances.
  3. Nor can I find fault with the way the Council has assessed Miss B’s needs. This too is in line with the Statutory Guidance. The Council has identified the need for help achieving three of the outcomes in the Statutory Guidance. It offered to commission care to meet Miss B’s eligible care needs. But she did not want to accept this as she wanted to continue finding her own carers. The Council was entitled to stop Miss B’s direct payments as the care she was buying was not being used to meet her assessed needs.
  4. However, the Council was at fault over the failure to address the rising debt until Miss B owed over £4,000. Miss B already had debts and her personal budget was meant to be addressing the need for help with financial management. The Council’s failure to pay her personal budget net of her own assessed contribution made it easier for her to accrue further debt. The Council needs to accept its responsibility by writing off the outstanding debt.
  5. The Council was also at fault for telling Miss B it could not arrange care until she agreed to pay off the debt for her assessed charge. The Statutory Guidance includes guidance on debt recovery, which includes the possibility of taking legal action. However, the existence of debts does not take away the duty to meet eligible care needs.

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Agreed action

  1. I recommended the Council:
    • within four weeks writes to Miss B confirming it has written off the debt for her assessed charge; and
    • within eight weeks considers what action it needs to take to ensure:
        1. direct payments are paid net of the assessed charge to reduce the risk of debts arising; and
        2. officers do not make meeting eligible cares needs dependent on agreeing to pay off debts.

The Council has agreed to do this.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation as the Council has agreed to take the action I recommended.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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