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Westminster City Council (19 012 209)

Category : Children's care services > Fostering

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 13 Oct 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms X complains the Council incorrectly deducted money from her pay as a foster carer. She also complains the Council’s complaint handling was poor. The Ombudsman does not find fault with the Council for deducting money from Ms X’s pay. We do find fault with the Council’s complaint handling.

The complaint

  1. Ms X is a foster carer. Ms X complains:
    • The Council has incorrectly deducted money from her pay. The Council said it deducted the money as it had overpaid Ms X. It said Ms X should only have been paid a £50 reservation fee, but it had instead paid her the full fostering allowance. Ms X disputes this and says the Council did not tell her she would only receive a £50 reservation fee. Ms X says she should have received the full fostering allowance for the period 12-26 October 2018.
    • The Council’s complaint handling was poor.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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 spoke with Ms X and considered the information she provided.
  2. I made enquiries with the Council and considered the information it provided.
  3. I sent a draft decision to Ms X and the Council and considered their comments.
  4. Under our information sharing agreement, we will share this decision with the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted).

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What I found

Foster Carer Allowances policy – April 2018

  1. This is the Council’s policy which provides guidance on how payments for looked after children should be made. The policy sets out the payments for when there are temporary absences of the foster child.
  2. It notes that where a child/young person is absent from their foster home for up to seven days, normal payments will continue. If the absence continues for longer than seven days, a reservation fee of £50 per week is payable, up to a maximum of three weeks.

Council’s complaints procedure

  1. The Council has a two stage complaints procedure. The service area being complained about will respond at stage one. The Council aims to provide its stage one response within 10 working days.
  2. If a complainant is unhappy with the Council’s stage one response, the complaint can be escalated to stage two. The complaint will be considered by a complaints and customer manager who will review the complaint. The timescale for a stage two response is also 10 working days.

What happened

  1. Ms X was a foster carer for a child, A. Ms X received a fostering allowance for the child. This allowance is designed to cover the cost of caring for a fostered child. It should cover food, clothes, toiletries, and all other expenses incurred in looking after a fostered child. Ms X also received a fostering fee. The Council paid Ms X just over £400 a week altogether for the placement
  2. In October 2018, Ms X reported A missing from the placement. A was found but did not return to the placement with Ms X. The Council decided to end the placement at the end of October 2018. This meant, from the date she was reported missing to when the Council ended the placement, A was absent from the placement for two weeks.
  3. While A was out of the placement, Ms X said she bought various items for A’s school trip. Ms X also topped up A’s dinner money and bought a new travel card for A. Ms X said she did not have the receipts for these items purchased anymore but provided copies of emails where these expenses were noted.
  4. In February 2019, the Council deducted just over £400 from Ms X’s pay. The Council said it did this because it had overpaid Ms X in October 2018. The Council said it should only have paid Miss X the full placement fee for the first seven days A was absent from the placement. The Council said for the subsequent week A was absent, it should only have paid Ms X a reservation fee of £50 a week.
  5. The Council said it provided all carers with a copy of its foster carer allowance policy. Miss X confirmed she had a copy of this policy.
  6. In response to my draft decision, Ms X was able to produce some receipts for the expenses she incurred. The three receipts are from the first week the child was absent from the placement.

Complaint handling

  1. Ms X first raised concerns about her payments in November 2018. The Council provided a written response to her concerns at the end of November. Ms X was not happy with the response.
  2. In December 2018, Ms X and the Council met to discuss the concerns. The Council provided a second written response in February 2019.
  3. In March 2019, Ms and the Council met again to discuss the complaint. The Council provided its minutes of the meeting to Ms X in June 2019.
  4. In August and September 2019, the Council provided its third and fourth written response to Ms X’s complaint.
  5. In January 2020, the Council provided its final response and referred Ms X to the Ombudsman.

Analysis

Payment deduction

  1. The Council’s foster carer allowance policy sets out what payments will be made to foster carers in the event of temporary absences of the foster child. The policy notes that for any absence longer than seven days, only a reservation fee of £50 was payable.
  2. A was absent from the placement for a total of two weeks. The evidence shows the Council paid Ms X the full placement fee for the two weeks. Therefore, I am satisfied the Council did overpay Ms X as she should only have received a £50 reservation fee for the second week A was absent from the placement.
  3. Therefore, I do not find fault with the Council for reclaiming the overpayment in February 2019.

Expenses incurred for A

  1. Ms X has provided some evidence of expenses she incurred during the two weeks A was absent from the placement. Normally, these expenses would be covered by the fostering allowance Ms X received from the Council.
  2. However, when the Council reclaimed the overpayment it made in February 2019, this meant it also reclaimed the fostering allowance. This meant any expenses Ms X incurred would not have been repaid.
  3. Ms X was able to produce some receipts for the expenses she incurred while A was absent from the placement. However, the receipts are from the first week A was absent. This means the Council has already reimbursed these expenses as it paid Ms X the full placement fee for the first week of A’s absence.

Complaint handling

  1. The Council took around 15 months to provide a final response to Ms X’s complaint. The Council’s timescale for responding to complaints should be 20 working days. This is a significant delay. At this stage, this is fault.
  2. Further, the Council appears to have departed from its two-stage complaints procedure as it provided five written responses to Ms X. This would have been confusing as it was not always clear what stage Ms X’s complaint was at. This is fault.
  3. I consider the faults identified caused Ms X an injustice. This is because the delays meant Ms X had to take time and trouble to pursue the complaint with the Council. Further, the length of the delay caused Ms X distress.

Agreed action

  1. To remedy the injustice caused by the fault identified, the Council has agreed to complete the following:
    • Apologise to Ms X for its poor complaint handling.
    • Pay Ms X £150 to recognise the time and trouble, and distress caused by the faults identified.
  2. The Council should complete the above recommendations within four weeks of the final decision.

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Final decision

  1. I find no fault with the Council for deducting money from Ms X’s pay in February 2019. I find fault with the Council’s complaint handling.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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