Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 21 May 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr and Mrs C complained about the Council’s administration of the Disabled Facilities Grant for their daughter. We find the Council met its limited duties by processing the grant and so was not at fault.
- Mr and Mrs C complained about the Council’s administration of the Disabled Facilities Grant (DFG) for their daughter. They say the Council paid DFG instalments to the contractor without their authority and without checking the works had been completed to a satisfactory standard.
- They say they have spent a lot of their time and money fixing the contractor’s mistakes. They add their family suffered distress and their daughter was deprived of the facilities she needed.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. 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)
- We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered information Mr and Mrs C submitted with their complaint. I made written enquiries of the Council and considered information it provided in response.
- Mr and Mrs C and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
Disabled Facilities Grant
- Councils have a duty under the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996 to award a Disabled Facilities Grant (DFG) to help meet the cost of adapting a property to meet the specific needs of a disabled person. The maximum amount of a grant is £30,000.
- Owner-occupiers, council tenants and private tenants can apply to the council for a DFG to make their home more accessible. DFGs must be used to meet the cost of adapting a property to meet specific needs, for example providing ramps or adapting/providing accessible washing facilities.
- Councils only approve grants for work they decide is necessary. The assessment of need is usually done by an Occupational Therapist.
- Mr and Mrs C have a disabled daughter (D). They approached the Council for a DFG to help fund a bedroom extension and wet room for D.
- The Council visited Mrs and Mrs C at their house in July 2018 and explained the DFG procedures. Mr and Mrs C said they wanted to manage the project themselves, including finding their own contractors.
- Mr and Mrs C updated the Council in October. They said they had got planning permission and building regulations approval. They also said they were looking for experienced contractors, and they would update the Council in a few weeks.
- Mr and Mrs C emailed the Council in November. They confirmed they had received a suitable quotation from a contractor. The Council arranged to meet Mr and Mrs C at their house to go over the paperwork.
- Mrs C signed the DFG application form on 14 November. She ticked that she agreed for the Council to pay the contractor directly. She also ticked that she understood the contract would be between her and the contractor.
- Mr and Mrs C contacted the Council at the beginning of December. They said they had decided to change contractor and would update it once they had received another quotation from a different contractor. They provided this to the Council on 13 December and asked to arrange a pre-contract meeting.
- Mr and Mrs C chased the Council for a response on 19 December. The Council responded and said it would approve the grant, but just had to complete the paperwork.
- The Council emailed Mr and Mrs C on 8 January 2019 and said the contractor had called and would provide its details.
- Mr and Mrs C emailed the Council on 9 January and said they had heard from the contractor who was waiting on the Council to approve a payment schedule. The Council responded the following day and said it did not previously say that it would agree stage payments with the contractor, and that was up to Mr and Mrs C and the contractor as the commissioners of the work. It said it would allow two interim payments and a final payment. The final payment would be £3,000 at the end of contract when all the certificates were in place. It said Mr and Mrs C would need to sort out the rest directly with the contractor.
- The Council emailed Mr and Mrs C a copy of the DFG approval letter on 16 January.
- Works started on 11 February. The Council received an invoice for £10,000 from the contractor on 13 February.
- Mr C signed an interim claim form on 15 February which said he was happy all the relevant works so far had been completed and was satisfied payment could be made to the contractor. The Council says it paid the contractor on 19 February.
- The Council visited the site on 6 March and 10 April. It also received further invoices from the contractor on 7 March and 10 June and paid both accordingly.
- Mr and Mrs C emailed the Occupational Therapist and copied in the Council on 5 August. They said they were about three to four weeks away from completion and there had been a delay because of internal issues.
- Mr and Mrs C emailed the Council on 12 August and asked it to attend a meeting at the site to discuss some issues they were experiencing with the contractor. The officer dealing with the matter replied on the same day and said he had only just returned from annual leave. He said he could not attend the site on the proposed day and offered alternative days. Mr and Mrs C said the meeting would still go ahead as planned and they would forward the officer a copy of the notes of the meeting.
- The contractor accepted during the meeting that works had not progressed as they should have. It also agreed the quality of the works was unacceptable, and it gave assurances that the project would be completed as soon as possible. Mr and Mrs C sent the Council a copy of the meeting notes on 15 August.
- Mr and Mrs C emailed the Council on 28 August and asked to meet. They said they were living in terrible conditions and the contractor had not returned to the site since 19 August. They also said as the contract was between the contractor and the Council, they had no power to dismiss the contractor for breach of contract.
- The Council responded to Mr and Mrs C on 30 August. It said they had decided to take responsibility for the administration of the contract at the beginning of the process. It also said it was not responsible for the contract and therefore they had the ability to dismiss the contractor. Finally, it said it could not intervene apart from withholding unpaid monies.
- The Council met with Mr and Mrs C on 6 September. It told them if they did not want to continue with the contract, they would have to give written notice to the contractor. Mr and Mrs C did this on the same day.
- The contractor failed to return to the site to complete the works.
- Mr and Mrs C emailed the Council on 18 September and said the contractor had not responded. They asked for the Council to pay some of the outstanding money from the DFG so they could complete the remaining works. They also asked for a further visit to discuss a way forward.
- The Council emailed Mr and Mrs C on 23 September. It said they could not spend the remaining DFG funds until the works were complete. It also said as the contract was between them and the contractor, it did not have the authority to retrieve the DFG funds. Mr and Mrs C responded and said they would be taking legal action as soon as they had a quotation to complete the work.
- Mr and Mrs C emailed the Council on 31 October. They said they wanted to start a complaint and asked for a copy of its complaints procedure. They also made a Subject Access Request (SAR) and asked for all documents relating to their case. They said they needed a response to the SAR before they could make their formal complaint.
- The Council responded to Mr and Mrs C’s SAR. Mr and Mrs C emailed the Council on 29 December and said it was deliberately not disclosing information. The Council responded on 22 January 2020 and said there had been no attempt to withhold information.
- Mr and Mrs C complained on 4 February. They said the Council paid the contractor without their authority and without checking the works had been carried out in accordance with the specification, building control regulations and drawings. They also said the Council made the last payment even though the contractor had left the site.
- The Council responded on 18 February. It said:
- Mr and Mrs C decided to commission, administer and project manage the contract.
- It was acting as the Local Housing Authority in processing the grant.
- Mr and Mrs C had the responsibility, as contract administrators, to arrange interim payment dates. Once an invoice is received, it will meet its commitments by paying the contractor within a set time.
- It was not its responsibility to check the quality of the work as Mr and Mrs C were the contract administrators and the building regulations should have been checked by the firm of independent assessors they had appointed to do the checking.
- It paid the contractor directly because Mrs C ticked the box when she completed the DFG application form.
- Mr and Mrs C replied and said the Council should have visited the site, inspected the work, and sought their agreement before making any payments.
- The Council sent its final response to Mr and Mrs C on 23 April. It re-iterated its previous response and said if there were any issues with the quality of the work, Mr and Mrs C should have contacted it. It also said they could receive the £2,642.50 that had not been paid as soon as they confirmed the adaptations were complete.
- Mr and Mrs C remained unhappy with the Council’s response and referred their complaint to the Ombudsman.
- The Ombudsman cannot investigate late complaints unless there are good reasons to do so. A late complaint is when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. Mr and Mrs C ended their contract with the contractor in September 2019 and were aware the Council had been paying the contractor. They did not refer their complaint to the Ombudsman until October 2020. I have exercised discretion to investigate Mr and Mrs C’s complaint and have considered the Council’s actions from July 2018. This is because Mr and Mrs C were left in a difficult position when the contractor unexpectedly left the site and so they were pre-occupied with restoring their house to a habitable state. In my view this is a good reason why they could not complain to us sooner.
- The evidence shows that Mr and Mrs C managed the project from the outset and the Council had little involvement. They sourced their own contractors, finalised the designs, and sought planning permission. The Council’s role was therefore limited to processing the grant.
- Mrs C signed the DFG application form on 14 November 2018 and ticked that she was happy was for the Council to pay the contractor directly. Therefore, I do not accept that the Council paid the contractor without Mr and Mrs C’s authority. Mr and Mrs C knew the Council was paying the contractor and did not raise any issues with this arrangement.
- The Council emailed Mr and Mrs C on 10 January 2019 and explained it did not agree to stage payments with the contractor. It also said Mr and Mrs C would need to sort out any payments directly with the contractor. Therefore, I am satisfied Mr and Mrs C were aware they needed to communicate with the contractor about when payments would be made. The Council’s responsibility was limited to paying the contractor when it received the invoices.
- Mr and Mrs C say the Council should have checked the quality of the works before paying the contractor. However, the contract was between the contractor and Mr and Mrs C. Mrs C ticked on the DFG application form that she aware of this. Therefore, it was Mr and Mrs C’s responsibility as contract administrators to make the Council aware of any issues with the quality of the work. They had also appointed a firm of independent assessors to check the quality of the work. The first time Mr and Mrs C made the Council aware of any issues was August 2019. The Council did not pay the contractor when it was aware of the issues.
- Mr and Mrs C say the Council paid the contractor £10,000 before the work started. They also say the Council failed to help them when they alerted it to the problems they were having with the contractor.
- The notes from Mr and Mrs C’s meeting with the contractor show that works started on 11 February 2019. The Council received an invoice from the contractor on 13 February 2019. Mr C signed the interim claim form on 15 February 2019 which said he was happy all relevant work so far had been completed to his satisfaction. The Council has confirmed it paid the invoice on 18 February 2019. I therefore do not accept the Council paid the contractor before the works started.
- I also do not accept that the Council failed to help Mr and Mrs C when they alerted it to the problems they were having. The officer that was dealing with their case could not attend the meeting in August 2019 as he had just returned from annual leave. He offered to meet on a different day. However, Mr and Mrs C said the meeting would still go ahead without him. When Mr and Mrs C contacted the officer again and said the issues with the contractor remained, he met with them to discuss a way forward.
- I appreciate that Mr and Mrs C have been left in a difficult position. It has taken them a long time to get the works completed, and they have had to live in unsuitable conditions for much longer than necessary. However, this is not as a result of any fault by the Council.
- I have completed my investigation. The Council was not at fault.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman