Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 09 Dec 2020
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs X and Miss Y complained about the Council’s failure to provide discretionary welfare support, reduce their Council Tax bill and make reasonable adjustments. The Ombudsman has found no fault with how the Council has dealt with these matters.
- Mrs X and Miss Y complain about the Council’s failure to provide welfare support and properly consider their Council Tax account.
- In particular, they complain the Council:
- Mishandled their application for Local Welfare Provision.
- Incorrectly refused their application for a Discretionary Housing Payment.
- Incorrectly pursued them for Council Tax arrears when they say they were exempt.
- Failed to take account of their need for reasonable adjustments when being contacted by the Council.
- They say the Council’s failure to provide the support they say they are entitled to has caused significant financial hardship and has impacted on their mental health.
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)
- The Valuation Tribunal deals with appeals against decisions on council tax liability and council tax support or reduction.
- 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
- As part of my investigation I have:
- considered the complaint and documents provided by Miss Y;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered its response;
- considered the relevant Council policies;
- considered the ‘Discretionary Housing Payments Guidance Manual’, published by the Department for Work and Pensions. This reflects the regulations which make up the law on this topic.
- sent my draft decision to both parties and invited comments on it before reaching my final decision.
What I found
Local Welfare Provision
- In 2013, councils were given the power to operate discretionary local welfare schemes to provide short term support to those most in need. In many cases they replaced what were commonly referred to as “crisis loans”.
The Council’s Local Welfare Provision policy
- The Council’s stated purpose behind the policy is to “assist vulnerable people in meeting their needs for subsistence or financial support where they have a short term immediate need”. It is means tested and support is provided in the form of goods and services, not cash payments. Awards are made by reference to eligibility criteria.
- There are two types of award:
- Local emergency support award – e.g. food/nappies/energy costs/travel costs.
- Local community support award – e.g. beds/white goods/crockery/cutlery/sofa.
- One of each award can be made in a six-month period. There is a two-stage review process.
Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP)
- DHP’s are intended to be short term payments towards rent in cases of financial hardship.
- The legislation governing the DHP scheme is the Discretionary Financial Assistance Regulations 2001 (as amended). The Regulations give councils broad discretion, but they have a duty to act fairly, reasonably and consistently. In reaching a decision they must take into account the claimant’s financial circumstances and any other relevant factors.
The Council’s DHP policy
- In making decisions, the Council’s policy states that consideration should be given to factors such as:
- Other benefits in payment.
- Financial and medical circumstances.
- Household income and expenditure.
- Applicants are required to provide information about their circumstances.
- There is an internal right of review.
- I have set out below a summary of the key events. But it is not meant to show everything that happened.
- There has been extensive correspondence between Miss Y and the Council. It is not my intention to detail all the correspondence exchanged. The correspondence follows a common thread and relates to Miss Y’s requests for support, her dissatisfaction with the Council’s responses and resultant complaints.
- Mrs X and Miss Y live together in privately rented accommodation. Miss Y is also Mrs X’s carer as she has several mental and physical health conditions.
- In early 2019, Mrs X and Miss Y were struggling to manage financially because they had recently moved house and they could not afford to pay their rent and other household expenses. They asked the Council for support. As the requests were dealt with by different Council departments, I have dealt with them under separate headings.
Discretionary Housing Support
- In March 2019, Mrs X and Miss Y applied to the Council for Discretionary Housing Support. They were awarded a time limited weekly payment of £60 per week because they had demonstrated that their expenditure exceeded their income. Shortly before this award was due to expire, they made another application as they were still unable to pay their rent.
- In May 2019, the Council wrote to Miss Y (who dealt with all correspondence on their behalf) explaining that there had been an overpayment and their award would be reduced accordingly. The Council also said their application for a furtehr award was unsuccessful.
- Miss Y appealed this refusal and also asked the Council to provide an explanation about why the error had occurred. In response, the Council asked her to provide more information about their circumstances, which she did.
- In June 2019, the Council explained it was unable to make an award because Mrs X and Miss Y had chosen to move to more expensive housing, knowing their housing benefit would not cover their rent. Miss X again appealed this decision. She explained they had to move in a hurry to escape harassment and poor living conditions.
- In response, the Council said it could review its decision if Miss Y could provide evidence as to why they chose a more expensive home and that they were now looking for somewhere more affordable. Miss Y again explained their circumstances, but the Council’s position remained the same. Miss Y continued to challenge this decision.
- Miss Y had several ongoing complaints with the Council. The Council decided to deal with all these matters in one complaint response.
- The Council’s final response said:
- DHP was a limited fund and was intended to be a short-term payment towards housing costs due to financial hardship. It was not intended to cover financial hardship as a result of someone having chosen to take on a tenancy they knew they could not afford.
- The Council noted the reasons for having to move home quickly, but Mrs X and Miss Y had known there was a £200 shortfall in rent when they moved in.
- They had already been awarded DHP in respect of their previous, cheaper property because they were unable to pay that lower rent.
- The Council was satisfied that income and expenditure had been properly and fairly assessed.
- The Council acknowledged the complainants had been asked to provide information to multiple officers on different occasions. This was due to the number of ongoing complaints, the volume of correspondence from Miss Y which was often sent to numerous departments.
- Their complaint was not upheld so they complained to the Ombudsman.
Local Welfare Provision
- In June 2019, Miss Y made an application for emergency welfare support as they could not afford food or heating. The Council agreed to provide an emergency food parcel and provide credit on their energy account. Officers made reasonable adjustments to provide this support because neither Mrs X nor Miss Y were able to leave their home.
- In July 2019, Miss Y made another request for assistance under the scheme. As before, she asked for help with food and energy costs plus items for the house. This application was unsuccessful because they had already received an award. Miss Y requested a review of this decision. The Council agreed to provide one item requested.
- Miss Y said it was impossible to make that choice and asked Mrs X’s social worker to liaise on their behalf. The Council agreed to provide a washing machine, double bed and mattress, electric cooker, bedding and a two-seater sofa. No crockery or cutlery would be provided. Miss Y was told she would be responsible for removal of any existing appliances and disconnecting the gas cooker and providing a suitable electrical socket.
- Miss Y told the Council this was not possible due to lack of funds and Mrs X’s anxiety over people coming into the house. Miss Y asked of a copy of the policy and criteria that informed the Council’s decisions, particularly about only being able to make one award, only being able to supply one appliance and a list of what support was available. The Council signposted Miss Y to the relevant policy on the Council website.
- In August 2019, all items except the cooker were installed/delivered. In September 2019, Miss Y arranged for the gas cooker to be disconnected and removed. However, as she could not afford the costs or inconvenience to Mrs X of having a socket installed, they could not accept delivery of the electric oven. They were left with no cooking facilities and Miss Y says their only means of heating food was over candles.
- Miss Y complained to the Council about the poor service she had received. In particular she complained about:
- Failure to make reasonable adjustments
- Harassment by staff
- Failure to provide a suitable replacement for a gas cooker.
- There was some initial delay in arranging delivery of the food parcel/energy top ups. But this was due to being unable to discuss the finer detail over the phone and issues with the top up cards.
- There was some delay in dealing with the complaint, but the case was reviewed within 20 working days and so was compliant with Council policy.
- An attempt to contact Miss Y by telephone did not amount to harassment as it was an oversight and was made in good faith.
- The initial refusal to support the second award was in line with the policy because it is not meant to replace appliances due to wear and tear. The supply of more than one item was outside of the normal allowances and in response to representations made by Mrs X’s social worker.
- The Council only provides electric cookers.
- Special arrangements were made to enable removal of existing goods, again beyond the scope of the usual provision.
Council Tax liability
- Mrs X and Miss Y complain that the Council incorrectly pursued them for Council Tax arrears when they should not have paid anything because of their personal circumstances. The records show their Council Tax was significantly reduced but they were still liable to pay 12.5% under its policy.
- This led to the matter going to court and bailiffs being instructed to recover the outstanding charges.
- They say this has caused significant distress and financial hardship.
- The Council is satisfied their Council Tax account has been managed correctly.
Failure to make reasonable adjustments
- Underpinning this complaint is the complainants’ view than they have been unfairly treated by the Council because of their circumstances and Mrs X’s disability. In particular, they complain the Council failed to respect their request to be contacted only in writing or by appointment. Despite this, they say several Council officers have continued to either call them or insist the matter would be better dealt with over the phone.
- The Council has accepted that there have been occasional times when officers have attempted to contact Miss Y by telephone. However, the complaint was not upheld because the vast majority of contact has been in writing.
- The Ombudsman is not an appeal body and does not retake decisions properly made by a Council. The Ombudsman’s role is limited to checking if there was any fault in the way a decision was made. If there was no fault or flaw, the Ombudsman may not, by law, intervene in the judgment reached by the Council. This is the case even where the Ombudsman may have given different weight to a piece of evidence or reached a different decision on the same facts.
Local Welfare Provision
- The scheme allows some discretion to officers when dealing with applications. It is a limited fund intended to help in a crisis so the Council must use this discretion carefully. The Council is not obliged to tailor its support to each applicant’s individual circumstances.
- I have reviewed all the case records. I have noted many instances where officers have offered support over and above what the scheme intended. I appreciate Miss Y has a different view and feels the Council did not do enough but I cannot agree for the following reasons:
- In respect of the first application, as soon as it became aware that a food parcel delivery was required this was arranged. Similarly, exceptional arrangements were made where an officer went to collect the fuel cards and top them up. There was no unreasonable delay in providing this support.
- The Council responded to the representations by the social worker and provided most of the items requested.
- Special arrangements were made for the removal of goods, outside the scope of the policy.
- It was clearly explained to Miss Y at the outset what the conditions were about supply of a cooker. I understand her preference for a replacement gas cooker, but this was not available under the scheme she applied for and was explained to Miss Y. It was up to her whether she chose to accept this or not.
- Mrs X and Miss Y were referred to a money management support organisation. The purpose was to enable them to be able to manage their finances and remove the need to seek crisis support.
- While I understand Mrs X and Miss Y felt frustrated and disappointed, my assessment is that this was because the Council did not meet their expectations about what the scheme should provide.
- This could have been avoided had the Council’s policy been clearer about what help was available under the scheme. The policy includes a list of items that can be provided. This includes cookers, beds, crockery and cutlery starter packs. It refers to ‘furniture packages’ and does not state that only one item will be provided. This also shows Miss Y was incorrectly told the scheme does not provide cutlery/crockery.
- While this was a shortcoming of the Council, I do not consider it was so serious to make a formal finding of fault, because:
- it is a discretionary policy;
- Miss Y was notified of the reasons for the Council’s decision making; and
- officers interpreted the policy in the spirit of its intended purpose. For example, the policy refers to a ‘crockery starter pack”. This infers crockery will only be provided to applicants setting up a new home.
- The Council may wish to consider making amendments to the policy to avoid unnecessarily raising applicant’s expectations in future.
Discretionary Housing Payments
- Although councils have wide discretion in how they make DHPs, we would expect them to follow the guidance manual published by the government and any local policy.
- Having considered the documents in this case and the Council’s actions there is no evidence it acted improperly. The Council gave reasons for its decision to refuse a further award that were compatible with both the government guidance and local policy. The Council considered Mrs X and Miss Y’s circumstances when deciding not to award them DHP, including their awareness of the unaffordability of their rent and the fact they had been given previous awards when their rent was lower. It had also taken into consideration their health needs when assessing their expenditure.
- I note Miss Y had the opportunity to ask for reviews of the Council’s decisions and to provide further evidence in support. The reviews were carried out properly and written reasons provided to explain the Council’s reasoning when it upheld its original decisions. The matter was further considered under the Council’s corporate complaints policy.
- There was one occasion of minor fault when the Council sought to recover an overpayment in May 2019. The letter sent to Miss Y was unclear and it is understandable why this caused Miss Y some distress. However, the Council quickly provided an explanation for the mistake and apologised. This was an appropriate resolution and was addressed as soon as it came to the Council’s attention.
Council Tax liability
- The Council has provided Mrs X and Miss Y with an explanation about why the Council Tax account was correct in its complaint response.
- I have seen no evidence from the complainants about why this calculation is incorrect, other than they believe they should be exempt because of Mrs X’s disability. In the absence of any such evidence, I am unable to investigate this aspect of the complaint further. If they do believe they are being charged incorrectly, they should raise this matter with the Valuation Tribunal, not the Ombudsman.
Failure to make reasonable adjustments
- In reaching my decision about this aspect of the complaint, I have considered both the Council’s records and the significant volume of correspondence sent to me by Miss Y. I can see there have been a few occasions when officers have asked Miss Y to call back or suggested a phone call may resolve the matter more efficiently than by email. Miss Y has also referred to unanswered calls made to her phone that have come from the Council. She says this has caused Mrs X to become distressed.
- However, the vast majority of Council contact with Miss Y has been in writing. Due to the large number of ongoing complaints from Miss Y at any one time, it is understandable why, on occasion, an occasional oversight has occurred. I can also recognise that such attempts at direct contact have been driven by an intention to solve a problem more quickly, rather than a deliberate attempt to cause the complainants harm and distress.
- On balance, I have decided these few occasions where the request for a reasonable adjustment has not been complied with does not amount to fault, when taken in the wider context of the sheer volume of contact between the complainants and the Council.
- I have not found the Council to be at fault in how it dealt with requests for welfare assistance from Mrs X and Miss Y. I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman