The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs Z complains about the Council’s handling of the payment of the adoption allowance for her two children. She also complains about contact with their sibling and a savings account. There was fault by the Council in requesting copies of paperwork for the savings account, in reducing the adoption allowance without notice, in its calculation of the adoption allowance, in facilitating contact with one of the siblings and in its complaint handling. The Council will apologise where it hasn’t already and will review its procedures.
- About the payment of adoption allowance for her two children. She considers the Council wrongly and without proper notice reduced the amount of adoption allowance it paid;
- That there were other errors in the Council’s calculation and notification of the adoption allowance payments;
- That the Council did not arrange or facilitate contact between her children and their sibling;
- The Council did not act in a timely way to resolve outstanding issues with a savings account for her daughter;
- The Council did not consider her correspondence and complaint properly.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe it is unlikely further investigation will lead to a different outcome.(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), 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)
- Under the information sharing agreement between the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), we will share this decision with Ofsted.
How I considered this complaint
- I considered the complaint and documents provided by Mrs Z and spoke to her. I asked the Council to comment on the complaint and provide information. I sent a draft of this statement to Mrs Z and the Council and considered their comments.
What I found
Summary of what happened
- Mr and Mrs Z are the adoptive parents of two siblings. The children’s birth parents had another child in May 2016. Since they adopted the children the Council paid Mr and Mrs Z an adoption allowance. In July 2017 the Council substantially reduced the allowance it paid. This was because Mr and Mrs Z had part exchanged their car under the terms of the finance arrangement they had entered into when they bought it three years earlier. The Council had included the previous finance payments when assessing Mr and Mrs Z’s means for calculating the allowance. But it did not consider that it should include the payments for the replacement car so it reduced the allowance.
- Mrs Z complained in July 2017 about the reduction. Mrs Z wrote further over the summer raising other issues including contact with the youngest of her children’s siblings and other complaints about the payment of the adoption allowance. There were several responses from the Council none of which Mrs Z considered to be satisfactory so she complained to the Ombudsman. The Council said it had not considered the complaint under its complaints process so we referred it back to the Council to do that. That completed in August 2018 at which point Mrs Z renewed her complaint to the Ombudsman.
Share Foundation – Junior ISA
- If a child has been looked after for over a year, the local authority has a legal duty to inform the Share Foundation so that the Share Foundation can create a junior ISA for the child and deposit money into the ISA provided by central government.
- When Mr and Mrs Z adopted the children the accounts needed to be transferred. This complaint concerns one of the accounts. The Council has commented that its records show it intended to send the paperwork from the Share Foundation to Mrs Z in December 2016 but it has no record that it actually did so. In January 2018 in response to a previous decision by the Ombudsman the Council said it would go back to the Share Foundation and request further copies of the paperwork. Mr and Mrs Z say they chased the Council about this over the coming months. The Council did not contact the Share Foundation until the end of July which was unacceptable delay. The Share Foundation responded immediately and the documents were sent to Mrs Z.
- In commenting on the complaint the Council said it had accepted in its previous correspondence the paperwork was not obtained and passed on in a timely way. It said it had provided an explanation of the reasons for the delay and an apology in its complaint response in August 2018. That letter says Mrs Z should have received the information but it does not say there has been delay, or explain what has happened or apologise. The Council should now apologise for the delay in requesting the information from the Share Foundation.
The adoption allowance – car loan
- The Adoption Statutory Guidance says any decision on the provision of financial support must be based on the needs and resources of the child and family. There is no justification to limit financial support to three years unless based on the needs of the family. Councils should review financial support annually and give notice if the intention is to stop payments. The principle of financial support is to ensure the adoption of a child (or the continuation of the adoption arrangement). Financial support is means tested. The Council uses the Standard Means Test Model for Adoption and Special Guardianship Financial Support as the basis for calculating adoption allowances.
- The Council’s position is that it is only reasonable to take into account vehicle finance or a car loan for a vehicle purchased at the point of adoption to accommodate the additional children. It considers the original vehicle would still have been suitable for the family when Mr and Mrs Z changed the vehicle in 2017. Therefore it would be wrong to continue to include the finance payment in the calculations when the adoptive family have decided to change the vehicle when that was not necessary to support the adoption.
- The Council says it would normally give an adoptive family the guidance on the payment of adoption allowances but it cannot say whether it did so here. In any event this would not have covered what would happen in this situation.
- The Council has accepted it was wrong to reduce the allowance without giving notice to Mrs Z. It considers there has been no adverse consequence for Mrs Z as the adoption allowance has been paid at the higher rate. It has said it will continue to include the car finance payment until the current agreement ends in December 2019.
- The Council has agreed to review its policy in respect of the conditions under which car finance will be considered in respect of adoption allowances, and the terms that will apply. It will take legal advice to ensure the revised policy complies with relevant statutes and guidance.
- It was wrong the Council altered the adoption allowance without notice but the Council has now paid the amount, including for the car finance, and agreed to continue to do so until December 2019. I recognise that much of the stress caused to Mrs Z was because she had no way of knowing that changing the vehicle under the finance agreement would have any bearing on the calculation of the adoption allowance. This meant that the reduction, without any notice, came as a shock. This was because of the lack of clear information from the Council at the outset about how the allowance was calculated. However I consider the Council’s decision to pay the allowance including for the car finance until December 2019 provides a sufficient remedy to address all of the injustice caused to Mrs Z.
- Mrs Z has referred to the Council’s consideration of her requests to reconsider the decision to reduce the adoption allowance. The Council should consider representations made and give reasons for its decision. There is no requirement for any formal review or appeal process but the Council should consider as part of its review of its policy on the payment of adoption allowances how it will consider representations made and whether it will offer any other right of review.
The adoption allowance – other calculations
- The Council has accepted there have been some errors in the calculations and the notification letters. But, overall, it considers that because it backdated the payments including an allowance for the car finance there has been no financial loss to Mrs Z.
- I understand why Mrs Z has little confidence in the Council’s statements about the accuracy of the calculations. The Council had said in one of its earlier responses to Mrs Z that the calculations had been checked but it was only later, after further correspondence from Mrs Z, that the errors were identified. Mrs Z has provided further detail about the figures used by the Council which call into question the basis of the calculations. In responding to this complaint the Council identified that although part of the calculation is done by using a spreadsheet there is then a manual calculation done to come to the final figure of the payment due.
- The Council recognises the current system lacks transparency and that should be addressed as part of its review. But I am satisfied that Mrs Z has now received the maximum amount of possible adoption allowance for the whole period.
Contact with sibling
- Contact between an adopted child, his or her adoptive family and the birth family is often in the form of indirect (letterbox) contact which means both families exchange basic anonymised information via a social worker. The parents of Mr and Mrs Z’s children had two further children after the siblings they adopted. Mrs Z complained about the Council’s role in arranging contact with the adoptive parents of the youngest sibling.
- The Council has commented that there are no court directions for contact between the siblings so the adopters have full authority over the child they have adopted and are free to arrange as much or as little contact as they wish. The Council will pass on contact details to adopters of siblings subject to agreement of the respective adopters. It is then up to the adopters themselves to make arrangements if they choose to do so.
- What should have happened was that the Council should have told the adoptive family of the youngest sibling that Mr and Mrs Z were willing to have contact. If the family agreed then the Council could pass on the contact details. There is no dispute that there is now contact but Mrs Z’s point is that this came about between the families through other channels and was not facilitated by the Council. The Council has not provided any factual information about what it did to facilitate contact and the officer has said that he cannot recall what happened. Given the lack of evidence provided by the Council and given Mrs Z’s comments I consider, on the balance of probabilities, there was fault by the Council failing to facilitate contact. The Council should apologise.
- The Council has accepted in previous responses that it did not consider Mrs Z’s correspondence through the appropriate procedures and has apologised. We dealt with a previous complaint from Mrs Z where we also criticised the Council’s complaint handling.
- In commenting on the draft of this decision the Council said it revised its complaint policy in November 2017. It introduced an electronic system to track and log complaints. Compliance with the policy and timescales are monitored by the complaints department. Weekly updates on the progress of all current complaints are circulated to senior managers and the Chief Executive every week and appropriate action is taken. Members are updated on the progress or response to complaints on a monthly basis. Since the time of this complaint, the Children’s and Adults Statutory complaints service has undergone a complete review.
- The Council will:
- apologise for the delay in requesting the paperwork from the Share Foundation and for failing to facilitate contact with the adoptive family of the youngest sibling;
- review its policy on the payment of adoption allowances in respect of car loans/finance agreements, how it will consider requests for review and how it calculates allowances and tell the Ombudsman of the outcome.
- There was fault by the Council in requesting copies of paperwork for the savings account, in reducing the adoption allowance without notice, in its calculation of the adoption allowance, in facilitating contact with one of the siblings and in its complaint handling. The Council will apologise where it hasn’t already and will review its procedures.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman