Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 22 Oct 2023
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council’s delay progressing Ms X’s application for a disabled facilities grant was fault. This left Ms X without safe and independent access to her kitchen for six months. The Council has agreed to apologise, make a payment to Ms X, and act to improve its services.
- Ms X complained about delay progressing her application for a disabled facilities grant to adapt her kitchen to be wheelchair accessible. It took over 17 months from the referral to start the works.
- As a result, Ms X experienced avoidable distress and could not use her kitchen safely and independently.
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. 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 significant injustice, or that could cause injustice to others in the future we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with an organisation’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)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered the complaint and the information Ms X provided.
- I made written enquiries of the Council and considered its response along with relevant law and guidance.
- I referred to the Ombudsman's Guidance on Remedies, a copy of which can be found on our website.
- Ms X and the organisation had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
- Disabled facilities grants (DFG) are provided under the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996. Councils have a statutory duty to give grants to disabled people for certain adaptations. These include enabling the disabled person to access their home and essential facilities within the home, like bathrooms, bedrooms, and kitchens.
- Before approving a grant, a council must be satisfied the work is necessary, appropriate for the disabled person’s needs, and is reasonable and practicable.
- The process of applying for a DFG usually requires:
- An assessment by an Occupational Therapist or other qualified assessor to identify the person’s needs;
- A schedule of works setting out the adaptations to meet the identified needs. Complex adaptations might also need plans or technical drawings;
- Quotes from at least two contractors for the cost of the works; and
- Certificates and approvals from both a tenant and a landlord, where the applicant is a tenant, or an owner's certificate if the applicant owns their own home.
- When the Council has all the necessary information, the formal grant application is complete. The Council should decide a grant application as soon as possible and must do so within six months.
- The statutory timescale does not begin until the Council receives a complete application. However, government guidance sets out expected timescales for progressing an application and completing the works.
- The guidance gives the following timescales:
- Urgent and simple works – 55 working days
- Non-urgent and simple works – 130 working days
- Urgent and complex works – 130 days
- Non-urgent and complex works – 180 working days
(Disabled facilities Grant (DFG) Delivery: Guidance for local authorities in England 2022)
- Once the work is complete, the council must pay the grant in full within 12 months of the application date.
- Ms X is Disabled. She uses a wheelchair. She is a tenant of a Housing Association.
- An Occupational Therapist (OT) from the County Council first referred Ms X to the Council in July 2021. The OT had not yet assessed Ms X. The Council sent Ms X various forms to complete in July and August which she returned. She selected a surveyor from a list provided by the Council to manage the project on her behalf.
- The OT assessed Ms X in December 2021. The assessment found Ms X needed significant adaptations to her kitchen to make it wheelchair accessible.
- The surveyor drew up plans which the OT approved in February 2022. The Council asked the surveyor to get quotes from at least two contractors.
- In May, the Council followed up with the surveyor about quotes.
- In June, the OT contacted the Council on Ms X’s behalf. The OT said Ms X was upset at not having heard anything from the Council. The OT asked the Council to contact Ms X urgently. The OT wrote to the Council again a month later because Ms X had still not heard from the Council. The OT said that Ms X had tried calling several times but calls had gone straight to voicemail. The mailbox was full and so Ms X could not leave a message.
- In late July, the surveyor completed the schedule of works to get quotes from contractors. At the same time, the Council wrote to Ms X’s landlord to seek its permission for the works.
- The landlord returned a completed landlord certificate at the end of July. However, it said this was only preliminary consent. It was not permission to start the works, because it needed information from the contractor first.
- In late September, the surveyor provided the Council with a report showing it had sought quotes from contractors. It selected a named contractor to complete the works for Ms X. This is the point at which the Council had a complete grant application.
- The Council sent the contractor’s details to the landlord a few days later. The landlord wrote to the contractor in October to ask for specific information.
- In November, the Council wrote to the landlord to ask it to confirm it granted permission for the works. It asked the surveyor to confirm with the contractor for a date in February to begin the works.
- Throughout January 2023, the Council liaised with the surveyor, the contractor and the landlord. The contractor provided information to the landlord in January. However, the landlord replied seeking more information.
- At the beginning of February, Ms X’s landlord approved the works. The Council approved the grant two days later. It told Ms X and the surveyor so they could tell the contractor.
- The works to Ms X’s kitchen started at the end of February and finished in early April 2023.
- The Council did not uphold Ms X’s complaint about the time taken to progress her DFG. It said:
- It had “made all practical steps to see that she is regularly in contact with each service area”.
- “of note has been the delayed responses to specific aspects under the works from [the landlord]”.
- It had “worked through the DFG process within our procedures especially in making sure you are regularly updated on process”.
- There was clear delay throughout Ms X’s application for a DFG. However, not all the delay was because of fault by the Council.
- The initial delay between July and December 2021 was caused by a wait for an OT assessment. This was the responsibility of the County Council, and so was not fault by this Council.
- There was a period between December 2021 and February 2022 for which the Council could not provide any information. This is when the Council should have been working with the OT and the surveyor to agree the works. I find the two months of delay to be fault by the Council.
- There was then a period of three months from March to May where there is no record of any action by the Council to progress Ms X’s DFG. This delay of three months was fault.
- The delay in June and July resulted from the surveyor’s delay producing the schedule of works and getting quotes from the contractor. Ms X chose this surveyor from a list provided by the Council. However, this stated that Ms X could use a different provider and that inclusion on the Council’s list was not a recommendation or approval. The surveyor was not, therefore, acting on behalf of the Council and so the Council is not at fault for its delay.
- There is no evidence of any significant action by the Council in August. This delay of one month was fault.
- The surveyor provided the quotes necessary to complete the DFG application in September. From that point, the records show the Council was doing its best to progress Ms X’s case with the surveyor, the contractor, and the landlord. Delay from October to the works starting in February was due to the requirements of the landlord and delay by the contractor providing this information. This was not the fault of the Council.
- In total, therefore, I find fault by the Council added six months to the delay progressing Ms X’s DFG. This fault caused Ms X significant injustice. She could not use her kitchen safely and independently throughout this time.
Communication and complaint handling
- The Council failed to communicate with Ms X about her application at any point between August 2021 and July 2022. This was fault. The evidence shows she tried to contact the Council several times and received no response. She had to ask the OT to contact the Council on her behalf, and still got no response.
- As a result, Ms X did not know what was happening with her application for 11 months. This caused her avoidable distress and frustration, which is an injustice.
- Our guidance on Effective Complaint Handling says councils should not try to pass the blame and should be honest in admitting when things have gone wrong.
- It is obvious from the Council’s response to Ms X’s complaint that it was frustrated by the time Ms X’s landlord took to agree to the works. The records show an ongoing issue between the Council and the landlord which was not isolated to Ms X’s case. However, the Council allowed this to overshadow its own role in the delay and tried to “pass the buck” to the landlord in its complaint response. It failed to acknowledge its failures in communicating with Ms X prior to July 2022. This was fault. This caused Ms X avoidable frustration and time and trouble continuing her complaint, which is an injustice.
- In response to my enquiries, the Council proposed a remedy of £200 to recognise the impact on Ms X of the delays in her DFG. I do not consider this to be a suitable remedy for the injustice caused.
- To remedy the injustice to Ms X from the faults I have identified, the Council has agreed to:
- Apologise to Ms X in line with our guidance on Making an effective apology
- Pay Ms X £1,500, being £250 a month in recognition of the impact of the six of months of avoidable delay
- Pay Ms X a further £500 in recognition of the additional distress caused by poor communication
- The Council should take this action within four weeks of my final decision.
- In response to my enquiries, the Council said it has since “recruited more staff and provided additional training to ensure that we are able to keep to reasonable completion times, along with improved communication with applicants.”
- I am satisfied this is appropriate to improve the Council’s DFG service in future. However the Council should also take the following action to improve its services:
- Share a copy of this decision with staff in the relevant departments to identify learning from this complaint.
- Remind staff responsible for responding to complaints to focus on the Council’s own role in the complained about matter and avoid passing any blame to third parties.
- The Council should tell the Ombudsman about the action it has taken within eight weeks of my final decision.
- I have completed my investigation. There was fault by the Council. The action I have recommended is a suitable remedy for the injustice caused.
Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman