Cornwall Council (20 000 208)

Category : Benefits and tax > Local welfare payments

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 07 Oct 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: the Council was not at fault when it refused to make a discretionary payment from its crisis and care award scheme to help Miss X with the costs of moving home.

The complaint

  1. Miss X complains that the Council refused her application for a grant under its Crisis and Care Award scheme to help with the costs of a move to more suitable accommodation.

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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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have spoken to Miss X. I considered the Council’s Crisis Care and Awards policy, Miss X’s application, and relevant notes and correspondence about her application and request for a review of the decision.
  2. Miss 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

The Council’s Crisis and Care Award scheme

  1. Since April 2013 local councils have operated local welfare assistance schemes to replace certain payments previously made by the Department for Work & Pensions under the Social Fund. The scheme is discretionary and is intended to support people in an emergency or disaster or help people resettle in the community.
  2. Cornwall Council’s welfare assistance scheme is called the Crisis and Care Award (CCA) scheme. The Council has published a policy which explains the conditions for getting a crisis or care award and items excluded from the scheme.
  3. The CCA policy says a crisis award is available to someone over the age of 16 who cannot meet their immediate short-term needs in an emergency or due to a disaster. The policy defines “emergency” as an unexpected or unplanned situation which requires immediate action. A disaster is defined as a fire, flood or some other calamity that causes significant loss or damage.
  4. A care award is intended to help vulnerable people live as independently as possible in the community. The policy says the applicant must meet one or more of the following conditions:
    • you (or a family member or someone you care for) needs help to get established in the community following a stay in an institution or residential accommodation in which you (or the family member) received care.
    • you, or a family member, or person for whom you or a family member provides care, needs help to remain in the community rather than enter institutional or residential accommodation where care would be provided;
    • you need help to set up home in the community as part of a planned resettlement programme following a period when you have been without a settled way of life;
    • you, or your partner, need help to care for a prisoner or young offender on temporary release;
    • you, or members of your family, need help with travel costs within the UK to visit someone who is ill, attend a relative’s funeral or ease a domestic crisis.
  5. The policy lists items excluded from crisis and care awards. This includes:

“repeat claims for the same item(s) or service; and

“housing costs (other than minor repairs and improvements)”

  1. The policy says the maximum amount an applicant may be awarded in a period of 12 months is £1,500.
  2. If the applicant disagrees with the decision, he or she can ask for it to be reconsidered. There is a two stage reconsideration procedure.

Miss X’s circumstances

  1. Miss X has multiple disabilities which affect her physical and mental health and limit her mobility. She receives disability benefits. She lives with a friend who is also disabled with restricted mobility. Miss X and her friend are joint tenants in private rented accommodation.

Miss X’s CCA application in 2019

  1. In March 2019 Miss X applied for a care award for removal expenses and to buy a fridge freezer and dishwasher. Miss X’s landlord had served a Section 21 Notice and she needed to move to alternative accommodation. She also said the landlord had been harassing her.
  2. The Council initially refused the application. But, after Miss X asked it to reconsider the decision, it agreed in May 2019 to pay for removals and a fridge/freezer and washing machine. The Council paid suppliers to deliver the appliances to Miss X’s home. The Council says it awarded £879.99 in total, including £550 for removal expenses.
  3. An entry in the Council’s records from March 2019 says the officer who dealt with the CCA application spoke to the housing officer who had advised Miss X when she was threatened with homelessness. The notes say the Council may have been able to help Miss X with rent in advance and/or a deposit. That advice was given when Miss X was threatened with homelessness because her landlord had served a Section 21 Notice. So assistance with a rent deposit or rent in advance would have been provided under a separate Homelessness Prevention Fund administered by the housing service. It would not have been a care or crisis award.

Miss X’s CCA application in 2020

  1. Miss X says she and her friend moved in 2019 to the first affordable private rented property they could find because they were under pressure from the landlord. After moving to the new property, they both found it difficult to manage the stairs. They started looking for a private rented bungalow.
  2. In early March 2020 Miss X completed a new CCA application form. She said she had found a suitable bungalow and asked the Council to make an award to cover rent in advance and removal expenses.
  3. A few days later, an officer in the CCA team called Miss X to get more information. According to the case notes, Miss X told the officer she and her co-tenant had spent the past 12 months searching for a suitable bungalow. She said they had not been able to save to meet the cost of the move because they needed to buy household appliances following the move in May 2019. The officer established that Miss X had to pay £917 as a deposit and £764 for her half of the first month’s rent in advance.
  4. The officer discussed the application with a manager who advised the application should be refused for the following reasons:
    • Deposits or rent in advance are not eligible under the CCA scheme;
    • Miss X had received an award for removals within the past 12 months and a further award could not be made for the same service;
    • Although the move was for reasons relating to their disabilities, Miss X and her co-tenant had sufficient time to budget for the costs of a move.
  5. The officer sent Miss X the decision letter on the same day. She gave one reason for refusing the application. She said it was a planned move which Miss X had been considering for the past 12 months so it was not eligible for an award. She suggested Miss X could apply to the Department for Work & Pensions for a budgeting loan.
  6. Miss X immediately asked for a review of this decision. She said she and her co-tenant were at risk of falling on the stairs. They needed to move to a level access bungalow for their own safety. She said she felt the Council had discriminated against them as disabled people. She believed the Council would have looked on the application more favourably if they had children or were ex-prisoners or asylum-seekers.
  7. An officer reconsidered the decision and decided to uphold it. He wrote to Miss X to explain the reasons. He said deposits for accommodation are not paid under the CCA scheme. It said the Council would only help with rent in advance when someone was setting up home after moving on from an unsettled way of life. He gave examples such as rough sleepers and people who had been in hostels, temporary or bed and breakfast accommodation. He said the Council would not pay removal expenses again because it had paid for removals in May 2019.
  8. Miss X asked for a further review. She said she and her co-tenant were both vulnerable and at risk if they stayed in the house. She said the landlord had not dealt with damp in the house. She disagreed that the move was a planned move. She said she had not been able to save money due to a dispute she had with the DWP about her claim for a disability benefit. She repeated her request for a payment to cover her share of the five weeks’ rent in advance and removal expenses.
  9. A different officer carried out the second review. He read a summary of the case and considered Miss X’s representations and the officer’s response to the first review. He upheld the decision to refuse the application. The letter to Miss X gave the following reasons:
    • The CCA scheme did not assist with deposits;
    • The scheme could not pay removal expenses twice within a period of 12 months;
    • The Council had already awarded £879.99 within the last 12 months and the maximum award was £1,500 in a rolling period of 12 months;
    • The move was not a resettlement move under the CCA scheme.
  10. The letter explained Miss X could complain to the Ombudsman if she was not satisfied with the response. In her complaint to us, Miss X said:
    • A housing officer had previously told her the Council could help with deposits and rent in advance;
    • The Council had not given a breakdown of its previous payment of £879.99 and, even if that was the correct amount, her second application would not have exceeded the maximum limit of £1,500;
    • The Council had a duty to assist her as a disabled local resident who was in living in unsuitable accommodation;
    • The Council had misrepresented her situation by describing the move to new accommodation in 2020 as a planned move.
  11. In the event, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Miss X’s move was delayed. She did not move to the bungalow until early June 2020. She paid for the removals and her share of the rent in advance from her income.

 

My analysis

  1. Miss X disagrees with the Council’s original reason for refusing the application: that it was a planned move. In my view the original decision letter did not fully explain the reasons for the decision.
  2. The CCA policy states that a crisis or care award cannot be made to meet housing costs. So it was not fault for the Council to refuse the application Miss X made in March 2020 to cover the deposit and her share of the rent in advance. Both these items are housing costs so they are excluded from the crisis and care award scheme. The original decision letter did not explain this. However the Council later gave Miss X a fuller explanation when it replied to her request for reconsideration of the decision.
  3. The CCA policy says the Council will not make an award when someone makes a repeat claim for the same service. The Council awarded £550 in May 2019 to meet Miss X’s removal expenses. Miss X applied for removal expenses again in March 2020. Although Miss X explained why she needed to move again so soon, the Council was entitled to reject her request as it was a repeat application for the same service. This decision was made in line with its policy.
  4. Miss X says the Council had a duty to help her as a disabled local resident living in unsuitable accommodation. Certainly Miss X has multiple disabilities and she is vulnerable. I understand she needed to move to a bungalow where she could be safe and more independent. However these circumstances do not match any of the Council’s criteria (summarised in paragraph 9) for making a care award. Miss X and her co-tenant were not moving as part of a planned resettlement programme after leaving an institution or residential care and they did not have an unsettled way of life.
  5. For these reasons, I find no fault in the Council’s decision to refuse Miss X’s March 2020 application or in the way it considered her request for a reconsideration. It is important to note that the CCA scheme is discretionary so applicants do not have an automatic entitlement to a crisis or care award. The Ombudsman’s role is to decide whether the Council considered all the relevant information when it assessed the application and followed the criteria in its policy. We cannot find the Council was at fault simply because Miss X disagrees with its decision.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed the investigation and found no evidence of fault.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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