Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 19 Jan 2022
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B complained that the Council stopped his education incentive payment without notice or explanation on two occasions and refused to backdate the money to cover the gaps. The Council has now offered to pay him £500, support him until the end of his course and review its policies. We are satisfied this is a reasonable and proportionate way of resolving the complaint.
- Mr B complains that Manchester City Council (the Council) in respect of his education incentive payment:
- failed to tell him when and how often he needed to provide evidence of his attendance at college;
- stopped his payments in February 2021 without telling him why;
- said it needed to carry out a financial assessment to ensure he was eligible for the payment despite never having said this previously;
- stopped his payment again in May 2021; and
- staff were rude to him when he contacted the Council to find out why.
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 an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant, made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided.
- Under the information sharing agreement between the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), we will share this decision with Ofsted.
What I found
Education Incentive Scheme
- The Council’s policy says:
‘Subject to approval and based upon an assessment of the young person’s financial needs, an incentive payment can be made to support and encourage a young person’s access to education. This will be an amount of £10 per week for accessing a course of two days or less, and an amount of £30 a week of three days or more. No payments will be made during Easter, Summer and Christmas breaks, but payments can be made for half term breaks.'
- Mr B is a care leaver. He was receiving an incentive allowance from the Council to support attending college. It is dependent on achieving 85% attendance and a means test.
- In January 2021 the Council tried to contact him to discuss information it had received from Mr B’s college saying he was at risk of being withdrawn from the course due to a failure to complete his assignments. Mr B did not respond so the Council stopped the money. Mr B didn’t contact the Council until 22 February 2021 after the payments had stopped. He provided further evidence and the Council restarted the payments.
- In April 2021 Mr B complained to the Council about his incentive money stopping and a gap in the payments which caused him financial hardship. The Council responded saying it was sorry to hear of his difficulties, but it needed to do a financial assessment to ensure he qualified for the money. It also said that even if he did qualify it would not backdate the money because a condition of the scheme is to provide proof of attendance of more than 85% and to engage with the Council.
- Mr B was unhappy with the response. He said he did not know when he should expect emails about proving attendance. He said the messages didn’t say what was required and his attendance was above 85%. He also questioned why he needed a financial assessment when he had been receiving the incentive for some time without one.
- In May 2021 Mr B contacted the Council as he had an exam and had no money for the bus. He says the receptionist was rude and unsympathetic to him. He complained again.
- The Council responded at stage two of its complaints procedure. The Council said that historically Mr B’s incentive payments had stopped and then restarted when he provided evidence. A new manager took over in January 2021 and wanted to be more proactive, asking him in advance of the expiry of the payment for evidence of attendance, hence the call and email in January 2021. The Council had also spoken to the college who said he was being taken off the course due to not completing assignments. As Mr B did not respond, his incentive was not renewed. After he contacted the Council and provided information the Council reinstated the incentive. But it did not backdate the payments because Mr B had delayed in contacting the Council for five weeks.
- The Council also explained the need for a financial assessment to be done regularly. It apologised that it had never done one to date but explained that it needed to happen. It said his payments had ceased on 17 May 2021 because the Council had tried to contact him on 12 and 13 May to do the financial assessment and again when he rang on 17 May 2021. It also said he had been verbally abusive to staff during that call. The Council had spoken to the team leader about Mr B’s frustrations and would feed this back to staff.
- Mr B complained to us. In response to my enquiries the Council said it had met with Mr B and discussed the complaint. The Council agreed that it needed to refresh the leaving care financial policies and procedures to make them a lot clearer and simpler for everyone (staff and young people) to understand. It offered a one-off payment of £500 to cover what he was owed and agreed to support Mr B to finish his university course. Mr B was very happy with the offer and confirmed this to the Council by email in November 2021.
- I have tried to contact Mr B to confirm he is satisfied but have not received a response.
- The Council accepts its financial policies and procedures in respect of leaving care were not very clear and this may have contributed to Mr B missing out on financial support during his studies. He was not aware he needed to provide further information In order to continue to receive the payments and his attendance remained above 85% despite the information received from the college about his assignments. Although it is reasonable for the Council to expect Mr B to keep in contact it had not provided any warning nor explanation about its change of approach regarding financial assessments. This was fault which caused Mr B distress and inconvenience.
- The Council has offered to review and refresh its policies to make them simpler for both staff and young people to understand, to pay Mr B £500 and to continue to support him for the remainder of his course. Mr B is satisfied with this offer and I consider it is a reasonable way of resolving the complaint.
- I consider this is a proportionate way of putting right the injustice caused to Mr B and I have completed my investigation on this basis.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman