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Staffordshire County Council (21 006 024)

Category : Adult care services > Charging

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 30 Mar 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There was no fault in the Council’s assessment of Mr X’s disability expenses for heating.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complained there was fault in the way Staffordshire County Council (the Council) calculated his disability related expenditure (DRE) for heating costs. He said this caused him a financial loss because he has a higher client contribution (care cost) and an outstanding debt for unpaid charges.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), 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 Mr X’s complaint to us, the Council’s response to the complaint and documents in this statement. I discussed the complaint with Mr X.
  2. Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

Relevant guidance

  1. Councils charge adults for care and support under powers and duties in the Care Act 2014 and in regulations. To work out the charge (client contribution), councils carry out a financial assessment looking at the person’s income and normally including any benefits they receive because of a disability. DRE are extra costs or expenses a person has that are linked to their disabilities. Where a council agrees a person has DRE, it reduces their client contribution because these costs are offset against their income in the calculation of the charge/client contribution.
  2. Care and Support Statutory Guidance explains the law. Paragraphs 39 to 40 say

“Where disability-related benefits are taken into account, the local authority should make an assessment and allow the person to keep enough benefit to pay for necessary disability-related expenditure to meet any needs which are not being met by the local authority.

In assessing disability-related expenditure, local authorities should include…….any reasonable additional costs directly related to a person’s disability: …….(vi) any heating costs, or metered costs of water, above the average levels for the area and housing type………

  1. The Council’s policy is to have three bands of DRE allowance based on the different levels of disability benefit. If the person feels their DRE is more than the top band, they can appeal by asking for an individual assessment of DRE. The Council asks for evidence of DRE. To prove a person has above average heating costs, the Council asks for a bill covering the previous 12 months.
  2. The Council uses guidance from the National Association of Financial Assessment Officers (NAFO) on heating allowances for DRE. This says for a single person living in a detached house in the West Midlands, the average yearly heating cost is £2053.10. This means where a person’s yearly bill is less than £2053.10, there is no DRE.

What happened

  1. Mr X’s complaint is the Council should not use NAFO guidelines on average heating costs because they are out of date and/or have been calculated with errors. He considers NAFO has used an incorrect calculation which has inflated average costs and this results in a loss to him because of a higher client contribution. Mr X considers the Council should use 2019 figures based on more recent pricing models published by the government.
  2. In March 2021, the Council wrote to Mr X about his DRE in response to his appeal against the Council’s assessment of his DRE. The Council said it would not give him a DRE for excess heating costs in his financial assessment because his weekly heating cost was below the average weekly cost set by the NAFO.
  3. The Council’s response to Mr X’s complaint said the finance team used the figures from NAFO which provided a consistent and transparent approach. Mr X also contacted the Council’s fraud team. The audit manager emailed Mr X to say he would not be carrying out any action under anti-fraud procedures because the finance team’s assessment of gas and electricity use was in line with normal processes.

Comments from the Council

  1. The Council told us:
    • It could consider excess heating costs as a DRE and to decide on whether costs are excessive, it uses guidance from the NAFO.
    • Mr X lived in a detached house so the NAFO guidance had £2053.10 a year as an average heating cost. So, a cost above this would be a DRE. Mr X stated in a spreadsheet that his heating costs were £24.81 a week. He did not provide evidence of this. This is £1290.12 a year which is well below the NAFO figure.
    • Mr X’s direct debit to his energy supplier on his December 2019 bank statement was £212 per month or £2544 per year.  This is above the NAFAO threshold by £490.90, but there is no way of knowing, from the direct debit figure if this included arrears from a previous year, or has recently increased.  If so his annual use could be less.  Mr X could have got an online annual statement from his supplier, which would have shown an accurate annual cost for his gas and electricity, but he did not provide this.  To consider gas and electricity as DRE, evidence of the last 12 months use is required. If this evidence was supplied and £2544 was correct, then excess fuel of: £2544 - £2053.10 = £490.90 / 52 = £9.45 DRE per week could reduce his assessed weekly contribution to £9.47.  This is dependent on his actual use.  If his fuel was evidenced to be lower than the threshold, then there would be no additional DRE allowance.

Was there fault?

  1. The Ombudsman is not an appeal body. This means we do not take a second look at a decision to decide if it was wrong. Instead, we look at the processes an organisation followed to make its decision. If we consider it followed those processes correctly, we cannot question whether the decision was right or wrong, regardless of whether a complainant disagrees with the decision
  2. Mr X’s complaint is the NAFO’s figures on average heating costs are inflated and because the Council uses these figures, it means that disabled people (including him) are unfairly denied a DRE which reflects an additional cost compared with the general population.
  3. There was no fault by the Council in using the NAFO guidelines. Nothing in CSSG forbids the Council from using standardised figures supplied by an external body. All CSSG says is a council needs to consider extra heating costs above average costs for housing type and area. I am satisfied it has done so in this case. Our view is councils have discretion around how they work out an average heating cost for a household. While Mr X may disagree with the way the NAFO worked this out, there is no evidence of fault by the Council. I have no grounds to question the Council’s policy or its application to the facts of Mr X’s case.
  4. The Council told me that if Mr X provides evidence of his fuel use for a 12-month period by providing the finance team with an on-line statement, then if it is above the NAFO figure, as suggested by his monthly direct debit, then it can consider an additional DRE. This would be an appropriate way for Mr X to minimise his client contribution and to achieve his desired outcome of a reduction in the charge.

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Final decision

  1. There is no fault in the way the Council assessed Mr X’s disability expenses. I have completed the investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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