Privacy settings

LGO logogram

Review your privacy settings

Required cookies

These cookies enable the website to function properly. You can only disable these by changing your browser preferences, but this will affect how the website performs.

View required cookies

Analytical cookies

Google Analytics cookies help us improve the performance of the website by understanding how visitors use the site.
We recommend you set these 'ON'.

View analytical cookies

In using Google Analytics, we do not collect or store personal information that could identify you (for example your name or address). We do not allow Google to use or share our analytics data. Google has developed a tool to help you opt out of Google Analytics cookies.

Cambridge City Council (21 002 983)

Category : Benefits and tax > COVID-19

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 19 Nov 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There was no fault in how the Council publicised or administered its additional restrictions grant scheme. It was entitled to review and amend the scheme, and it has provided clear reasons for why it did so. For this reason, we have completed our investigation.

The complaint

  1. I will refer to the complainant as Mr H.
  2. Mr H complains about the Council’s handling of COVID-19 support grants for taxi drivers and firms. In particular, he complains:
  • after receiving one grant, the Council said it would automatically award him any future grant for which he was eligible, but the Council then changed its policy;
  • the change in policy means other taxi firms are only entitled to a small grant, and that, for the time being, he will not qualify for any further grant.

Back to top

The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. 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)

Back to top

How I considered this complaint

  1. I reviewed Mr H’s correspondence with the Council.
  2. I also shared a draft copy of this decision with each party for their comments.

Back to top

What I found

  1. Mr H is licensed to work as a taxi driver in the Council’s area.
  2. In January 2021, Mr H emailed the Council’s taxi licensing team. He said, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the taxi trade had lost a significant amount of business, but had had no support from either central or local government. Mr H listed some of the measures other councils had implemented to support taxi drivers, including grant payments and the refund of licence fees. He asked if the Council had plans to introduce any similar schemes.
  3. A Council licensing officer replied quickly to Mr H’s email. The officer explained the Council had made some changes since March 2020 to support the taxi trade, including allowing licensees to pay their fees by direct debit over a period of months, and extending vehicle licences. They also explained the Council was currently finalising details of a grant scheme to help taxi drivers make their vehicles 'COVID secure'.
  4. In February, Mr H emailed the Council’s business grants team, to again ask whether any support was available for taxi firms. He said he had looked on the Council’s website but could not find any information.
  5. A business grants officer again replied quickly, signposting Mr H to the Council’s ‘information for businesses’ webpage. The officer drew Mr H’s attention the Council’s additional restrictions grant (ARG) scheme for the third national lockdown, and said there were a number of categories under which taxi firms might qualify.
  6. A few weeks later Mr H emailed the business grants team again. He said he had successfully applied for a phase 2 ARG, receiving £2400, but had been unaware of the scheme previously, and so had not applied for a phase 1 ARG while the scheme was still open. He asked if it were possible to make a retrospective application.
  7. The Council’s business grants officer replied. He confirmed the deadline for applications for the phase 1 ARG scheme (for businesses affected by the second national lockdown in November) was 31 January, and that Mr H could no longer apply for a grant. However, he explained Mr H’s business should receive a local supplement and “any further” ARGs.
  8. Mr H then emailed the licensing officer again. He said he had previously asked the officer whether the Council was offering any financial support to the taxi trade, but the officer’s “reply was negative”. Mr H pointed out he had now been awarded an ARG, and asked why the officer had not informed him of the availability of this scheme in January. He said he had been “misled”, and asked whether this meant the taxi trade was “going to be exempt” and allowed to retrospectively apply for the phase 1 ARG scheme.
  9. The officer responded to say they were in the process of investigating Mr H’s comments. In the meantime, they provided Mr H with a link to the business information page on the Council’s website.
  10. In March, the Council emailed all its registered taxi drivers. It said that, following feedback from the trade, the Council would now add a new eligibility category to its ARG scheme. This category would cater for all Council-licensed taxi drivers and would provide a grant of £700 for each eligible applicant.
  11. Mr H then submitted a stage 1 complaint to the Council on 8 March. He said the licensing team had told ‘the taxi trade’ in January that no financial support was available, but that several drivers had then received £2400 grants under the phase 2 ARG scheme. The Council had then suspended the scheme for taxi businesses “after a surge of applications”, before introducing the new category limiting grants to £700. Mr H complained the Council was discriminating against taxi drivers.
  12. The Council responded on 11 March. It explained that most of the funding it had received from the Government for COVID-19 grants had been with the aim of supporting businesses paying business rates for premises in Cambridge. The Council had also received a lower level of funding for the ARG scheme, and the Government had allowed the Council some discretion in how to manage the scheme and set its eligibility criteria. The Council had used its ARG funding to support businesses which did not pay business rates, but had either been forced to close or were otherwise severely affected by the pandemic.
  13. The Council said there had been wide coverage of the ARG scheme by the press and on social media, and that there was detailed guidance on its own website. It said its licensing team was not aware of the eligibility criteria. The Council reiterated there was guidance on its website, and an email address for queries from businesses.
  14. The Council said it was entitled to review and change its policy at any time to account for changes in circumstances. In this case, it said it had considered feedback from the taxi trade, and had issued a note via email and on its website explaining it was going to review the policy.
  15. The Council explained the factors it had considered as part of the review. This included the fact the previous criteria required applicants to be resident in Cambridge, which excluded many who were licensed to work in the city but did not live there. It also considered the fact there was only limited funding available, which it needed to distribute fairly.
  16. The Council said that, while it would not ask applicants who had already received a larger grant to repay the additional money, it would not pay any further grants to them, until the cumulative value of available grants exceeded what they had been paid. It reiterated its right to review and amend the policy, and that it had taken its decision in light of feedback from the taxi trade.
  17. The Council commented that taxi drivers who were sole traders also had access to the Government’s self-employed income support scheme. It also said the Government had recently announced further funding for business support, and that it would update its policy accordingly once the Government issued guidance on this.
  18. In April and May, Mr H had further correspondence with the Council. Mr H had applied for a further ARG under the new phase of the scheme, which the Council had rejected, and it reminded him he was not eligible for a further payment because he had received the original £2400 grant. Mr H then explained he owned two vehicles, and criticised the new policy because it entitled every registered driver to a grant, regardless of whether they owned their own vehicle.
  19. On 17 May, the Council wrote to Mr H to respond to his criticism. It explained the purpose of the policy was not to provide wage support, and that the licensed drivers to whom it had paid grants were self-employed (and therefore did not receive wages). They also needed to demonstrate they had suffered a significant loss in income because of the pandemic.
  20. The Council reiterated Mr H had already received the original, larger grant payment and so was not entitled to a further grant.
  21. Mr H referred his complaint to the Ombudsman on 1 June.

Back to top

Legislative background

Additional Restrictions Grant

  1. In November 2020 the Government introduced the additional restrictions grant (ARG) scheme to support businesses impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.
  2. The Government published guidance to support councils in administering these grants. This encouraged councils to support businesses from all sectors that may have been severely impacted by restrictions but were not eligible for other schemes.
  3. The Government suggested business areas councils could support but made clear this list was not directive. Rather, councils were to issue grants at their discretion, based on local economic needs.

Back to top

Analysis

  1. Mr H has raised several different, albeit linked, issues as part of his complaint. In the interests of clarity, I will address each issue individually and in turn.
  2. I should first note, however, that I can only investigate and consider Mr H’s complaint, insofar as any potential fault by the Council has affected him personally. Although I appreciate Mr H has framed his complaint to encompass alleged injustice to members of the local taxi trade in general, we cannot accept him as a representative for other drivers without their formal, written consent.

Failure to notify taxi trade of the availability of support

  1. Mr H complains the Council did not notify members of the local taxi trade they were potentially eligible for financial support. In particular, he complains the licensing officer ‘misled’ him about this during their email exchange in January 2021, which meant he missed out on the opportunity to apply for the (then current) ARG scheme phase.
  2. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government has introduced a range of financial support schemes for individuals and businesses in different sectors. Some of these schemes are administered directly by the Government, while it has delegated others to local councils, including the ARG scheme. In doing so, the Government has given councils discretion to administer the schemes as they consider most appropriate for their areas.
  3. In this case, the Council has explained the range of measures it has taken to raise awareness of the various local schemes available. This includes information on its website and social media channels, alongside coverage in the local press.
  4. I understand Mr H feels the Council should have contacted him, and other members of the local taxi trade, direct to inform of them support available. However, there is no requirement for the Council to have done so; and, given the number and range of different businesses in the Council’s area, I do not consider this would have been practical anyway.
  5. I note, in his first email to the licensing officer in January, Mr H said he had looked on the Council’s website for information about support, but could not find any.
  6. I have looked at the Council’s website myself. On the home page, one of the main options to click on is titled ‘Coronavirus’. This opens a new webpage, which includes another list of options, one of which is titled ‘Coronavirus: Information for businesses’.
  7. Clicking on this opens another webpage, which gives an overview of the support schemes available, and provides contact details for the relevant Council team. This is the same webpage to which the business support officer signposted Mr H in February.
  8. I cannot say why Mr H was unable to find this information himself before contacting the licensing officer. But I am satisfied it is readily available, and I am also conscious there is no suggestion Mr H has any difficulty in accessing or using the internet (I note, for example, once he was signposted to the correct webpage, he appears to have been able to apply for a grant without any further assistance).
  9. Taking this together, I am satisfied the Council has adequately publicised the availability of its schemes.
  10. This said, I am somewhat critical of the licensing officer’s response to Mr H’s email in January.
  11. Mr H says the officer’s response to his question about support was ‘negative’. In fact, this is not accurate – the officer did not tell Mr H there was no support available, but rather advised him what the licensing team had done to help taxi drivers. Though this, evidently, was not the information Mr H was seeking.
  12. As the Council says, I accept entirely the licensing team was not the appropriate department to give advice on the Council’s business support schemes. These schemes have nothing to do with licensing.
  13. But, at the same time, I am not convinced the licensing officer could reasonably have been entirely unaware of the existence of the schemes, nor that the Council had a business support team which was administering them. So, while the officer may not have been able to provide specific advice to Mr H about his eligibility for any of the schemes, they could at least have told him whom he needed to speak to.
  14. I have considered carefully whether to make a finding of fault on this basis. I acknowledge Mr H’s point, that, if the licensing officer had correctly signposted him, he may have been able to apply for the phase 1 ARG before the deadline of 31 January.
  15. Equally, however, and as I have said, I am satisfied the relevant information was freely and readily available on the Council’s website, and that there is no apparent reason Mr H should not have been able to find this himself. And it was, ultimately, not the licensing officer’s role to provide advice to Mr H on financial support.
  16. On balance, therefore, I consider this a shortcoming by the Council, but I do not find it amounts to fault.
  17. I find no fault in this element of Mr H’s complaint.

The change in the Council’s policy

  1. Mr H complains that, after word spread amongst the taxi trade of the ARG scheme, the Council decided to review the scheme and limit grants to £700 per applicant. He also complains the Council has refused to allow him to apply for a further grant, because he received the original, larger grant of £2400.
  2. The Council has explained it decided to review the scheme, after it became apparent the current policy meant some taxi drivers were being left out. This was because, in particular, many drivers licensed by the Council do not actually live in its area, which was an eligibility requirement for the scheme.
  3. It has also explained it decided to restrict each applicant’s grant to £700 because of the limited funding available. And, in the interests of fairness, it would not pay further grants to drivers – such as Mr H – who had successfully applied under the previous scheme, until the cumulative value of available grants exceeded the £2400 they had already received.
  4. In other words, Mr H was not entitled to receive any more grant funding, until and unless later applicants had been awarded more than £2400 in total across different phases of the ARG scheme.
  5. The Ombudsman’s role is to review the way councils have made their decisions. If a council has followed an appropriate process, taken into account relevant information, and given clear and logical reasons for its decision, we generally cannot criticise it. We do not make operational or policy decisions on councils’ behalf, or provide a right of appeal against council decisions, and we cannot uphold a complaint simply because someone disagrees with what a council has done.
  6. The Council has correctly pointed out the ARG scheme is for it to administer as it sees fit, within the guidance set by the Government. The Council is also entitled to review and amend its policy, if it considers it appropriate.
  7. And I am satisfied the Council has given a clear and logical explanation for its decision here. It acted upon feedback from the trade, and changed the scheme to ensure it catered for people who would otherwise miss out, but had to limit the grant available to ensure the money went as far as possible. These were all decisions the Council was entitled to make. There is no evidence of fault here.
  8. I acknowledge it may appear unfair to Mr H he was able to claim a grant of £2400, while later applicants have received only £700. But this is the inevitable result of the Council’s legitimate change in policy; it is not because of any administrative fault. And, in any case, this clearly does not represent an injustice to Mr H, which the Ombudsman could remedy for him.
  9. I also understand Mr H’s frustration he cannot, for the time being, apply for any further funding. Again though, this was a decision the Council was entitled to make, and it has explained clearly why it did so.
  10. Mr H made a further criticism of the Council’s policy, which was that, in setting a flat rate of £700, it did not take account of the fact different drivers have different expenses. For example, some drivers do not own their own vehicle, and therefore have no maintenance and other costs, while some drivers own or are responsible for multiple vehicles.
  11. I should comment I find the Council’s response to this a little unclear, as it does not seem to directly address Mr H’s point. But, either way, I do not consider the Council’s ARG scheme – or, for that matter, any of the other support schemes – can practically be administered in such a way that it tailors grants exactly to individual applicants’ needs.
  12. It is clearly true, as Mr H says, that different drivers (and, more widely, different businesses in general) have different costs and expenses, and so some will benefit less than others from the same level of grant. However, these schemes are designed simply to help businesses remain viable under difficult circumstances. They are not intended to be a form of means-tested benefit. Rather, as the Council has pointed, self-employed drivers are also entitled to access the Government’s income support scheme, which is tailored to individual applicants’ circumstances.
  13. I find no fault in this element of Mr H’s complaint.

Back to top

Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation with a finding of no fault.

Back to top

Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

Print this page