The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs C complains about the Council’s refusal of a blue badge renewal. The Council was at fault for the way in which it processed a blue badge application. The Council has agreed to review its procedures, pay Mrs C £250 and complete an assessment for a blue badge.
- The complainant who, for confidentiality reasons I refer to as Mrs C, complains the Council inappropriately refused a renewal for a blue badge. It failed to give her advance notice of a phone assessment, sent confusing correspondence and treated her as if she had no appeal rights.
- Mrs C says she has not had a blue badge for several months, and this is affecting her ability to go out.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- We investigate complaints about councils and certain other bodies. Where an individual, organisation or private company is providing services on behalf of a council, we can investigate complaints about the actions of these providers. (Local Government Act 1974, section 25(7), as amended)
- This complaint involves events that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government introduced a range of new and frequently updated rules and guidance during this time. We can consider whether the Council followed the relevant legislation, guidance and our published “Good Administrative Practice during the response to COVID-19”.
- We may investigate matters coming to our attention during an investigation, if we consider that a member of the public who has not complained may have suffered an injustice as a result. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26D and 34E, 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 read the information provided by Mrs C and the Council’s response to the complaint. I reviewed the assessments the Council completed and the written communication it sent to Mrs C.
- I completed a draft decision and after receiving comments from Mrs C spoke with a Council officer about the blue badge policy.
- Mrs C and the Council had an opportunity to comment on a revised draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
What should have happened
- The Department for Transport has issued revised guidance (August 2019) to councils when providing blue badges to disabled people with severe mobility problems. The guidance provides a structured functional mobility assessment.
- The guidance sets out two types of eligibility criteria for issuing blue badges, eligible without further assessment; and eligible subject to further assessment. The applicable guidance in this case is the latter.
- To qualify under these criteria, an applicant must be more than two years old and fall within one or more of the following descriptions:
- drives a vehicle regularly, has a severe disability in both arms and is unable to operate, or has considerable difficulty in operating, all or some types of parking meter; or
- has been certified by an expert assessor as having an enduring and substantial disability which causes them, during the course of a journey, to:
- be unable to walk;
- experience very considerable difficulty whilst walking, which may include very considerable psychological distress; or
- be at risk of serious harm when walking; or pose, when walking, a risk of serious harm to any other person.
- excessive pain;
- length of time they are able to walk for;
- manner in which they walk;
- use of walking aids;
- outdoor walking ability;
- psychological distress;
- danger to applicant’s life/serious deterioration in their health;
- risk of serious harm to self/others.
Hounslow’s blue badge policies
- To get a blue badge an applicant must get 10 points or more at assessment.
- The Council’s COVID-19 procedure for a blue badge allowed people with nine points or more an interim blue badge until a face-to-face assessment.
- The Council replaced the COVID-19 policy with the “Updated Hounslow Procedure 1/10/20”. This says the Council will complete a desk based assessment. If the Council needs to complete a further assessment because an applicant does not achieve 10 points, it will send a confirmation letter for a telephone assessment it has pre-arranged. If the applicant is unsuccessful they can appeal. In these circumstances the applicant will receive a further appointment for a face-to-face assessment.
- So far the Council has not carried out any face-to-face assessments.
- Mrs C has had a blue badge since the 1990’s. On 14 March 2021 Mrs C made an application to renew her blue badge. The Council commissions Dependability Limited to carry out assessments on its behalf. It completed a paper based assessment and awarded Mrs C with nine points.
- Dependability Limited completed a telephone assessment and scored Mrs C seven points and ineligible for a blue badge. Mrs C says the phone call came with no notice and she had no opportunity to prepare for the assessment or get support for the assessment. Dependability Limited says it does not send a letter of appointment as it is difficult to judge how long an appointment will take. Instead it checks whether the timing is convenient with the applicant at the start of the call. It does not routinely record the “check”.
- The decision letter said Mrs C could not appeal the decision but could seek a review, explaining the reasons for the review and any further medical evidence Mrs C sought to rely on. The Council would then complete an assessment when the mobility clinic reopened.
- Mrs C wrote to the Council on 12 April asking for a review of the decision. The Council responded on 21 April refusing the review saying it had already considered a review and there was no further right of appeal.
- In response to our early enquiries the Council explained it sent this letter in error and that it would fast-track Mrs C’s review. The Council completed a review of Mrs C’s application, and found her ineligible.
- The Council accepts it advised Mrs C that she had exhausted her review rights in error. It says because of the complaint it now has extra checks to prevent a repeat of the error.
Is there fault causing injustice?
- The Council has accepted it made administrative errors in processing Mrs C’s application for a blue badge. This includes wrongly advising her that she had no further review rights. This is fault.
- The Council failed to provide notice to Mrs C about the telephone assessment. This is not in line with its policy and is fault. Dependability Limited says it asks applicants at the start of the assessment about whether it’s convenient but makes no note of completion.
- Because of the lack of notice Mrs C could not prepare for the assessment. This put her at a disadvantage. Although the Council completed a review of Mrs C’s eligibility after she complained it has yet to complete a face-to-face assessment. While I understand the Council has not yet resumed face-to-face assessments this is not in line with its policy and is fault.
- Mrs C has the uncertainty of not knowing whether she would be eligible for a blue badge following a face-to-face assessment. She has also had the time and trouble in pursuing the Council after it made administrative errors in processing her application.
- The Council is at fault for failing to review the temporary policy after 12 months. It may be acceptable for the Council not to have face-to-face assessments because of restrictions caused by COVID-19. However it should have either devised an alternative review mechanism or kept the policy of rolling on temporary blue badges until it can complete face-to-face appeals.
- The Council’s non-adherence to policy may have also affected other blue badge applicants both in the way it conducts telephone interviews and in the delay in face-to-face assessments. The law allows the Ombudsman to investigate matters coming to its attention where there has been no formal complaint. The recommendations listed below are therefore to reflect others who could be affected.
- I consider there was fault in the Council’s actions and this has caused Mrs C and potentially others injustice. I consider the following actions are appropriate to remedy the faults identified:-
- the Council apologises to Mrs C and pays her £250 for the uncertainty, time and trouble its actions have caused;
- until the Council reintroduces face-to-face assessments the Council liaises with Mrs C to find out how best to assess her application;
- if the Council assesses Mrs C eligible for a blue badge, pay her £25 a month for the period she would have had the blue badge if the Council had completed a face-to-face/alternative assessment earlier;
- the Council undertakes a review of the current policy and a timescale for when it will reinstate face-to-face assessments;
- the Council reviews how it advises applicants about the telephone assessment;
- once the Council has a revised policy or can complete face-to-face interviews writes to all those who have appealed since October 2020 offering them a face-to-face assessment or suitable alternative.
- (a) and (b) within one month of the final decision;
- (c) within one month of the assessment;
- (d) to (e) within three months of the final decision.
- I consider there was fault by the Council and the commissioned service which caused Mrs C injustice. I consider the actions above are suitable to remedy the injustice caused. I have now completed my investigation and closed the complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman