Northumberland County Council (20 004 092)

Category : Adult care services > Charging

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 23 Feb 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Council has recognised and apologised for faults in a delayed council tax refund, and some aspects of its financial assessments for community support and residential care. I consider the actions taken and the apologies provided are sufficient to remedy the errors made. I do not find fault in the Council’s approach to assessing Mr D’s finances for charges related to his long-term residential care. It has made legitimate enquiries about withdrawals from a bank account.

The complaint

  1. For confidentiality I refer to the complainant as Ms A. Ms A complains in her own right and on behalf of her father, who I refer to as Mr D.
  2. Ms A complains the Council failed to:-
      1. make a refund of council tax properly;
      2. assess charges for care properly;
      3. consider the “ownership” of a joint bank account;
      4. deal with complaints properly and in a timely manner;
  3. Ms A says she has had to chase the Council to ensure actions are taken and for information. She has had the added pressure of having to check invoices are correct. She feels the Council has not listened to her and are victimising her. Ms A says the Council’s actions have exacerbated her mental health problems.

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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, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered Ms A’s complaint to the Council. In response to the complaint the Council has sent several documents which have included:-
    • complaint correspondence;
    • financial assessments;
    • case records.
  2. In addition I have considered relevant legislation and guidance in particular:-
    • Care Act 2014;
    • Care and Support Statutory guidance (CASS) 2014.
  3. Ms A and the Council have had an opportunity to comment on a draft of this statement. I have considered any comments made before reaching a final decision.

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What I found

Background information

  1. Mr D lived in the community. Following a stay in hospital the Council supported Mr D by providing day care once a week. At the time Mr D’s health was poor and it was unclear how many, if any, days he would be able to attend.
  2. Mr D attended the day centre for three days after which he was readmitted to hospital. Mr D left hospital and entered a residential care home for respite care, this then became a long term placement.
  3. Ms A has several complaints relating to the Council’s charges for care and a delayed refund payment of Council tax. For ease I will address the complaints separately.

Council tax refund

  1. The Council contacted Mr D to tell him of an overpayment of council tax of over £500. An accompanying letter said the Council would credit his bank account for this amount.
  2. Ms A contacted the Council as Mr D did not receive the credit. The Council apologised for the error and explained that at the time it sent two letters, a generic one in error and a further two enquiry letters. The enquiry letters asked whether Mr D wanted the overpayment credited to his council tax account for the following year; or to his bank account. The Council says it never received a response to the enquiry letters; but processed a credit to Mr D’s account as soon as it spoke with Ms A.
  3. In response to a draft of this statement Ms A says it is unclear why the Council asked about how to “refund” the overpayment. Mr D was no longer living in the community he would therefore have no account for the roll-over of a credit.
  4. It is unclear why the Council made the enquiry. It has however apologised for the error in sending the generic letter but says this was in part due to the COVID-19 measures it was taking to reduce administration.
  5. Ms A received conflicting information and was put to time and effort in contacting the Council for an explanation. However, I consider the Council’s swift action, explanation, and apology is sufficient to remedy this part of the complaint.

Assessment for community based charges

What happened

  1. In April 2019, the Council completed a financial assessment over the phone for Mr D to establish his charges for day care.
  2. Ms A complains the financial assessment was unfair as she did not have the relevant paperwork to hand and was not told about how to appeal any charges. Ms A says at the time the Council did not ask for proof about a jointly held bank account between her and Mr D. She says during the assessment she told the officer most of the money within the account was hers.
  3. The officer does not recollect Ms A comments about the bank account and completed the assessment based on a 50/50 ownership of the bank account. The Council accepts that it initially undercharged Mr D. It increased the charge after it received bank statements which showed Mr D’s savings. This resulted in an increase in charge of £7 per week.
  4. Ms A says the Council failed to explain that it would still charge Mr D even if he could not attend the day centre. Ms A says had she known this she would not have agreed to the service as Mr D’s health condition was poor. Ms A says the Council did not tell her the charge before the care started and increased the bill without consultation with her.
  5. The Council has apologised for these failures. It does not however accept that Ms A was not aware of the charge. It says Ms A signed a declaration dated before the start of the service acknowledging receipt of several documents. One of the documents says charges accrue for booked places even if people do not attend.
  6. The Council accepts there was an increase in charge a week after the service had started. It says it wrote to Ms A about the revised charge in May 2020. Ms A took no action to cancel the service after the Council provided her with the revised costings. Ms A says she did not receive the revised costing until after the care had ended in July, she never received the May letter.
  7. Mr D went into a care home initially as a short term resident and then a long term resident. Ms A says the financial assessment is wrong as it failed to consider that she has more than a 50% interest in the joint account. The Council asked and received bank statements from Ms A but says they are too heavily redacted to assess whether it should accept she has more than a 50% share of the savings, or that £17000 withdrawn from the account between June and July 2019 was all her money.

What should have happened

  1. CASS says,
  2. “8.2
    • be comprehensive, to reduce variation in the way people are assessed and charged
    • be clear and transparent, so people know what they will be charged”
  3. “8.16 Where a local authority has decided to charge, except where a light touch assessment is permissible (see paragraph 8.22 below), it must carry out a financial assessment of what the person can afford to pay and, once complete, it must give a written record of that assessment to the person. This could be provided alongside a person’s care and support plan or separately, including via online means.”
  4. Annex B of CASS says,
  5. “12) Where a person has a joint beneficial ownership of capital, except where there is evidence that the person owns an unequal share, the total value should be divided equally between the joint owners and the person should be treated as owning an equal share.”

Is there fault causing injustice?

  1. The Council has accepted it could have been clearer in the information provided to Ms A, and that there was a variation in the charge. I am unable to say however, that Mr D was caused any injustice. This is because Ms A was aware of the increase in charge but took no action to cancel the care provided. On balance it therefore appears that the day care would still have been arranged had Ms A been aware initially that the charge was £7 extra.
  2. Ms A disputes the amount the Council has attributed to Mr D’s savings. Ms A says she raised this at the time of the telephone assessment, but this was ignored. The Council is entitled to account for half of the joint savings unless Ms A can evidence her increased entitlement. The Council has asked for bank statements and although these have been provided the amount of redaction makes it difficult for the Council to conclude Ms A has a higher entitlement to the savings.
  3. I am unable to find fault with the Council’s actions. It has attributed the joint savings as prescribed by CASS and has properly considered further evidence provided by Ms A.
  4. The matter is ongoing, and the Council is willing to reconsider the assessment if Ms A provides further evidence. In the event the Council establishes Mr D has less savings it has agreed to reduce the charges accrued for both day care and residential care in line with that reassessment.

Delay in complaint handling

  1. There are several delays in the Council responding to Ms A’s queries and escalating her complaint. Ms A also repeatedly asked for a complaints procedure which she never received.
  2. The Council has apologised for the delays where they have occurred. While I understand that Ms A would be frustrated by these delays I consider an apology is appropriate to remedy this part of the complaint.
  3. The Council failed to provide Ms A with the complaints procedure. While this is fault, I am unable to say Ms A suffered significant injustice as a consequence. This is because the Council provided a full response to her concerns. I would however suggest the Council reminds staff to provide complaints procedures or refer people to any relevant website links when they are raising concerns.

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Final decision

  1. The Council has accepted and apologised for errors it has made. I am unable to say that Ms A or Mr D suffered significant injustice or there is any unremedied injustice as a result or any other fault. I have now completed my investigation and closed the complaint.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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