Wealden District Council (19 008 606)

Category : Benefits and tax > Local welfare payments

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 04 Aug 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains the Council unfairly refused his application for a Discretionary Hardship Payment (DHP) and Exceptional Hardship Payment (EHP). He says this meant he had less money every month after he had paid his bills. Mr X appealed the EHP refusal to a Valuation Tribunal so this part of the complaint is outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. There was no fault in the Council’s consideration of the DHP application.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I shall call Mr X, complains the Council unfairly refused his application for a Discretionary Hardship payment (DHP) and Exceptional Hardship Payment (EHP). He said this has meant he has less money every month after he has paid his bills.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated Mr X’s complaint about a DHP. The final section of this statement contains my reason(s) for not investigating the rest of the complaint.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Valuation Tribunal deals with appeals against decisions on council tax liability and council tax support or reduction.
  2. We cannot investigate a complaint if someone has appealed to a tribunal. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(a), as amended)
  3. 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)
  4. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I read the papers put in by Mr X and discussed the complaint with him.
  2. I considered the Council’s comments about the complaint and any supporting documents it provided, along with Mr X’s comments on the information the Council provided.
  3. Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

  1. Mr X made an application for a DHP from the Council in April 2019. A Discretionary Housing payment is an extra payment from a limited budget, which allows local authorities to provide extra financial help for people who are getting Housing Benefit.
  2. Mr X supplied details of his income and expenditure to enable them to make a decision.
  3. On 10 April 2019 the Council refused the application. The Council said that his weekly income was £196 and his expenditure £193, so he still had disposable expenditure.
  4. Mr X appealed the decision to the Council. The Council refused the appeal on 11 June 2019. The Council said it reviewed the figures included in the expenditure breakdown but it decided that he still had more disposable income (£196.79) than expenditure (£196.34) and so it refused a DHP payment.
  5. Mr X argues that his satellite television charges should be an essential expenditure. I can see from the Council’s letter of 9 April 2019 the Council did allow the £20 direct debit for sky although noted that it did not consider it an essential expenditure. Mr X says that his sky costs were £28. So, while I note Mr X’s concerns, as the Council did allow the expenditure no injustice was caused to him on this point.
  6. Mr X says that as the Council’s policy does not indicate what is an essential and a non-essential expenditure it is difficult for him to ‘reduce some of the non-essential items to make his financial situation more comfortable’ as the Council suggests.
  7. I have looked at the Council’s policy. Point 21 says that ‘it may be reasonable to expect a customer to reduce expenditure on non-essential items (e.g. satellite tv, entertainment costs. However, customers should not be expected to reduce expenditure on essentials (e.g. food and fuel) unless the expenditure in these areas is unreasonable high.
  8. I can see no evidence the policy does not say what is essential and non essential expenditure. The Council gives clear examples in point 21. The Council could not possibly list every possible expense and classify it as essential or non-essential so giving examples and then assessing each case on its merits gives applicants enough information. I find no evidence of fault on this point.
  9. Mr X says that Council’s DHP policy makes reference to a points scheme, but he has not seen evidence the Council has used it. I note that point 32 of the policy says that in making their decision officer will make use of software to administrate online applications, using a points based system. It also says that officer can override the software is they feel it is justified.
  10. The Council has said that ‘Our policy does state that on making their decision officers will make use of software to administrate online applications. This is true for online applications and they are automatically scored by the software, but each case is still reviewed on a case by case basis manually by officers. The software is a guide to officers and does not make the decision. In Mr X’s case, the Council processed his application manually so it was not processed through the software but was assessed manually by Team Leaders. The decision would have been the same regardless of whether it was an online application or not as the online score is not used to make the final decision’.
  11. The Council has explained that as Mr X’s application was not made online, his application was processed manually rather than using the software. So, I can find no evidence of fault on this point.
  12. Mr X says that he wrote to the Council in July and August 2019 to explain that his financial circumstances had changed as his expenditure had increased. He complains the Council did not reply and review this DHP application, even though its policy requires applicants to tell it of any change in circumstances.
  13. The Council wrote to Mr X on 3 September 2019. The Council said it made a decision on his DHP in April and it reviewed the decision in June 2019. The officer said he was satisfied the decision was correct and he would not consider the claim further. However, if Mr X wanted to make a claim at any point in the future he could complete the enclosed form. The letter explained that DHP payments were normally only made for 3 months as short term help and applicants are expected to show they had received budgeting, housing or relevant advice if they made a further application. Mr X had received a DHP before but this does not mean he would automatically be eligible for further payments.
  14. Clearly Mr X expected the Council to review his application every time one of his payments changed. He says that as the Council expected him to tell it if he received a DHP and his circumstances changed, it should work the other way round. I do not agree with Mr X’s view on this point. The Council only expected Mr X to tell it of a change in circumstances if he was receiving DHP. As Mr X was not receiving DHP there was no obligation for him to tell it of a change in circumstances.
  15. Mr X argues the Council’s policy does not make it clear there is only one review carried out. I do not agree on this point. The policy says that an applicant has a right to ‘a review’ and then to complain to the LGO. A review to me is singular, meaning one review.
  16. Mr X says the Council’s letter of September 2019 did not make it clear that if he wished to make another claim following the Council’s decision on the DHP award that he should complete a new form. Again, I cannot agree on this point. The letter says that ‘he was satisfied the decision was correct and he would not consider the claim further. However, If Mr X wanted to make a claim at any point in the future he could complete the enclosed form’. I consider the letter clearly stated the Council would not review the previous claim but Mr X could make a new claim. I find no fault on this point.

Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation of this complaint. This complaint is not upheld as there is no evidence of fault.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not investigated Mr x's complaint about the EHP. Mr X appealed against the decision to a Valuation Tribunal. The Ombudsman cannot investigate a matter which has been appealed to a Valuation Tribunal.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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