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Northamptonshire County Council (20 008 039)

Category : Adult care services > Direct payments

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 30 Jun 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr D complained the Council failed to advise his parents until March 2019 that his father’s transport funding had stopped in 2016 and they should not use his direct payments for this purpose or socialising. Mr D says his parents were faced with an unexpected bill and suffered unnecessary upset and distress which particularly affected his father’s health. We have found fault by the Council but consider the agreed action of an apology, removal of charges and a review of procedures is enough to provide a suitable remedy.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr D, complains the Council failed to advise his parents until March 2019 that his father’s transport funding had stopped in 2016 and they should not use his direct payments for this purpose or socialising. Mr D also complains about an invoice sent to his parents for £1,447.05 in December 2019 and the way the Council dealt with him and his mother when seeking to recover the outstanding amount.
  2. Mr D says because of the Council’s fault his parents were faced with an unexpected bill and suffered unnecessary upset and distress which has particularly affected his father’s health.

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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. 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)
  3. 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 read the papers provided by Mr D and discussed the complaint with him. I have considered some information from the Council and provided a copy of this to Mr D. I have explained my draft decision to Mr D and the Council and considered the comments received before reaching my decision.

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What I found

Legislation

  1. The Care Act 2014, the Care and Support Statutory Guidance 2014 (updated 2017) and the Care and Support (Charging and Assessment of Resources) Regulations 2014 set out the Council’s duties towards adults who require care and support and its powers to charge.
  2. The Council has a duty to assess adults who have a need for care and support. If the needs assessment identifies eligible needs, the Council will provide a support plan which outlines what services are required to meet the needs.
  3. Plans must be kept under review and authorities are expected to review at least annually. Periodic reviews must not be used to arbitrarily reduce a care and support package.
  4. Everyone whose needs the local authority meets must receive a personal budget as part of the care and support plan.
  5. Direct payments are monetary payments made to individuals who ask for one to meet some or all their eligible care and support needs. They provide independence, choice and control by enabling people to commission their own care and support to meet their eligible needs. The Council should support people to use and manage the payment properly.
  6. After considering the suitability of the person requesting direct payments against the conditions in the Care Act 2014, the council must decide whether to provide a direct payment. In all cases, the council should consider the request in as timely a manner as possible. The council must provide interim arrangements to meet care and support needs to cover the period in question. Where accepted, the council should record the decision in the care or support plan. Where refused, the council should provide the person making the request with written reasons to explain its decision (Care and Support Statutory Guidance 2014).
  7. Unspent direct payments will usually be reclaimed by the local authority.

Key events

  1. Mr D’s father is registered blind and his needs are met through direct payments and he employs his wife as his personal assistant. The Council has provided a copy of its assessment of Mr D’s father’s care needs dated October 2009. This noted Mr D’s father wished to use his personal budget to see his family and go out and included expenditure on a personal assistant, socialising, petrol and/or taxis and home and/or garden maintenance plus a contingency amount. This would be via the use of direct payments.
  2. Mr D’s father’s care and support plan from 2012 also says he will use his personal budget towards social things and the cost of petrol and provided annual expenditure for these items. This plan provides details of the support service Mr D’s mother used to help her in managing the direct payments for her husband.
  3. The care and support plan for 2016 does not refer directly to expenditure for socialisation and transport and provides a slightly reduced personal budget. It does refer to support being needed to organise social activities and transport being required to meet social participation.
  4. Mr D’s parents refer to the 2012 plan in their contact with the Council and say they did not receive the 2016 plan. The Council has provided a copy of a signed assessment and care plan dated 15 November 2016. I note the plans do not appear to have been regularly reviewed.
  5. The Council has provided records of various discussions with Mr D’s mother during 2011 about the use of the allowance for petrol. These largely related to the need for receipts and that expenditure should not exceed the weekly amount.
  6. The personal budget agreement template provided by the Council states that the personal budget money must be spent to meet the outcomes as detailed in the support plan and cannot be spent on anything illegal or on gambling or something which may be considered detrimental to health. It does not refer to transport or socialisation costs.
  7. I asked the Council for the date of any change in policy about the use of direct payments for transport. The Council cannot confirm the date or how this was highlighted to affected users at the time but says it most likely took place during 2011/12.
  8. The Council says in its complaint correspondence that it verbally advised Mr D’s parents that direct payments could no longer be used for transport during a November 2016 care plan review meeting. The Council has provided its system note for a meeting on 10 November 2016 with Mr D’s parents. This states the following…

“[Mr D’s father] asked regarding transport as [his wife] is struggling with her leg she is not always able to drive - I explained we do not provide transport services - but I could send information on the Volunteer car scheme - and the NDDS (Northampton Door to door service) – [Mr D’s father] stated that you cannot call them up on the day in an emergency - I explained that we do not provide a transport service and if it was an emergency then they would have to either call a taxi (which they could have to wait for) or the emergency services if it is that sort of emergency. I tried to explain that social care do not provide the service he wants.”

  1. Mr D says his parents had asked about the possibility of hospital transport at the above meeting given the number of trips his father was having to make at that time. Mr D says his parents had not understood from the discussion that there had been a change in policy about general transport.
  2. The Council telephoned Mr D’s mother on 21 March 2019 to explain they were using their budget for petrol and socialising which was not agreed in the last care plan and to stop doing so. The Council explained it would visit to explain further but that it did not fund petrol which would need to be paid by the customer. The Council may fund socialising if this is identified as a need in a new care plan.
  3. The Council visited Mr D’s parents on 25 March to discuss the use of the direct payment. Mr D’s parents had a copy of the 2012 support plan which had an amount for petrol and social time. The Council showed Mr D’s parents the current support plan from 2016 and explained direct payments had changed. The Council confirmed it no longer paid for petrol which had been explained in 2016 and socialising was not agreed in the personal budget although this could be reviewed. It is recorded that Mr D’s mother would no longer use the money for petrol.
  4. Mr D’s mother telephoned the Council on 17 January 2020 about an invoice dated 7 December 2019 for £1,447.05. Mr D’s mother explained she had not spent any money on petrol since the Council’s visit in March 2019 and did not understand why she had received an invoice for a period before this advice.
  5. The Council visited Mr D’s mother on 28 January with a copy of the 2016 care and support plan and the note from the care manger’s 2016 visit about transport. Mr D’s mother asked for a payment plan over a period of time to help pay the invoice.
  6. Mr D contacted the Council on 17 February about the above. Mr D contacted the Council again on 2 March to ask for a repayment plan to settle the outstanding invoice. Mr D subsequently disputed the invoice.
  7. Mr D complained to the Council on 7 October. The Council responded on 3 November and apologised for the delay in its reply. The Council decided Mr D’s father’s direct payment had been spent on unauthorised expenditure and his parents had been advised that the Council did not fund petrol/transport and socialising costs.
  8. The Council has explained that it is reviewing its processes and has introduced pre-paid cards to ensure that customer spend can be evaluated in real time to identify any inappropriate spend sooner and removing the need for customers to submit statements, receipts and invoices. The Council has also advised that finance officers are visiting staff to provide support in their oversight of the direct payment processes.

My consideration

  1. There is fault by the Council in its failure to regularly review the care and support plan for Mr D’s father.
  2. I note there does not appear to have been any highlighted change in the care needs of Mr D’s father over this period. I am concerned the reasons for removing socialisation from the care and support plan during this period are not clear.
  3. I have seen no evidence of an explanation being provided to Mr D’s parents at the point the Council decided it would no longer fund transport/petrol costs or subsequently that it would no longer fund socialisation costs. I consider this to be fault. I also consider, on balance, there was a misunderstanding about what was being discussed at the November 2016 meeting. Any such misunderstanding was exacerbated by the delay between the discussion in March 2016 and an invoice being sent in December 2019.

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Agreed action

  1. The Council has agreed to the following action to provide a suitable remedy to Mr D’s parents:
      1. write to Mr D’s parents with an apology for the failure to regularly review Mr D’s care plan and poor communication about the use of direct payments within one month of my decision;
      2. pay Mr D’s parents £150 in recognition of the upset they have been caused within one month of my decision;
      3. complete a review of Mr D’s care and support plan to include a review of his socialisation needs within two months of my decision;
      4. review the outstanding invoice for £1,447.05 sent in December 2019 and remove any charges for transport/petrol or socialisation from before 25 March 2019 and issue a revised invoice as necessary within two months of my decision; and
      5. review its procedures to ensure care plans are reviewed regularly and that any concerns about direct payment spending are properly communicated to users at the time and followed up within three months of my decision.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation as I have found fault by the Council but consider the agreed action above is enough to provide a suitable remedy.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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