Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 23 Mar 2020
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms X complains the Council was at fault in how it reviewed her financial support as a Special Guardian and reduced her allowance. The Ombudsman has found no evidence of fault in the way the Council considered these matters so is completing his investigation.
- The complainant whom I shall refer to as Ms X complains about the Council’s decision in 2018 to reduce the allowance she receives as a Special Guardian for B following a financial assessment. Ms X says the reduced allowance has caused B and Ms X’s family financial hardship and affected Ms X’s ability to work.
- Ms X says the Council’s responses to her complaints do not cover her concerns about her employment.
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)
- 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
- I have read the papers submitted by Ms X and discussed the complaint with her. I considered the Council’s comments about the complaint and the supporting documents it provided. I have explained my draft decision to the Council and considered the comments received.
What I found
Background to complaint
- The Council has responsibility for B as the child lived in its area. B went to live with Ms X and her partner Mr Y in 2014 under a connected person living arrangement. Ms X lives in a different local authority area. In September 2015 the courts granted Ms X a Special Guardianship Order (SGO) for B. The SGO gives children more permanence than a regular fostering arrangement and gives their guardians more rights to make decisions on their behalf.
- The Council and Ms X agreed a Support Plan for B. A court hearing considered the SGO. It was agreed the Council would continue to pay Ms X a weekly allowance of £385.51 for three years from the date of the order, less child benefit Ms X was entitled to claim for. The allowance equalled a fully connected foster carer. It was agreed the allowance would revert to the regular Special Guardianship rate after three years subject to annual review.
Financial review 2018
- Ms X contacted the Council in July 2018 about a review of the financial payments. The Council carried out a financial review. In September 2018 it agreed to pay Ms X the regular rate of £175.93 less child benefit which was £162.23 starting in October 2018. The Council told Ms X of its decision.
- The Council transferred the case to the local authority in whose area Ms X lived. This was according to Special Guardianship legislation whereby support is provided by the council the family lives in three years after the order is granted. The Council advised the relevant local authority and Ms X of the transfer.
- Ms X was unhappy with the result of the review and told the Council. The Council reviewed the decision and agreed to pay Ms X an increased allowance of one and a third the rate of the allowance. This increased the allowance to £213.97 from December 2018.
- The Council gave Ms X an extra payment of £979 to help with buying a bed and IT equipment for B. Ms X continued to be unhappy with the allowance from the Council. Officers tried to meet with Ms X without success. Ms X spoke to a Special Guardianship manager in January 2019 and the officer confirmed the allowance would remain as agreed in December 2018.
- Ms X told the Council in March 2019 she was struggling to manage on the allowance. Ms X said she had arrears on their holiday home and breakfast club and school dinners for B. Ms X said B was due to go on a school trip and she was struggling to pay for it. Ms X raised concerns about B’s schooling and wanted help with it.
- The Special Guardianship manager told Ms X in March 2019 the Council was increasing the allowance slightly because of an error in the calculations. It would now be £220.87 a week backdated to December 2018 when the allowance changed. Ms X advised she was now claiming child benefit which she had not claimed before despite being advised to. The Council says it is unclear why Ms X did not claim before 2019 and for any other benefits she may have been entitled to for B.
- The Council found it had not paid Ms X £50 a year identified in the support plan for educational purposes. So paid Ms X the outstanding amount of £200 to use the money for the school trip. The Council said it would pay a further £50 for education to Ms X in 2020. The Council offered to meet Ms X and her partner to discuss B’s needs further and their situation to reassess whether it could consider increasing the allowance further. Ms X agreed to speak to her partner about a meeting and let the Special Guardianship manager know their availability.
- In March 2019 the Council agreed to pay Ms X’s debt for breakfast club and school meals of £117.15. The Council recognised Ms X would be unable to seek employment if she lost B’s place at breakfast club.
- The Council advised Ms X she needed to seek help from the other local authority for school support as the case had transferred, apart from the financial allowance, in September 2018. The Council has offered to meet Ms X again as she did not provide a date for meeting as previously agreed. The Council says the meeting was to discuss the allowance and whether it could adjust it. Ms X declined the meeting as she considered the offer too late and wanted to pursue her complaints through the complaint procedure.
Council comments on the complaint
- The Council confirms it considered the impact of the reduced allowance on Ms X’s ability to secure employment. It says it has maintained a higher level of payment than originally agreed in court and responded to the needs Ms X has presented.
- The Council accepts it did not carry out annual financial reviews of the support plan until Ms X’s contact in July 2018. It says it has no rationale recorded for this. It apologises to Ms X for this and any upset or distress caused.
- The Council accepts there were some delays and miscommunications when dealing with Ms X’s concerns. In January 2019 it appointed a new Special Guardianship Manager who could not respond to Ms X for several weeks. There was also a period in April 2019 when the manager was on leave and then having to deal with other matters. The Council apologised for any delays and confirms the new manager will be able to offer a consistent and responsive service to Special Guardians.
- The Council accepts it did not carry out annual financial reviews as required of the Special Guardianship support between 2015 and 2018. It says it has no reason recorded why the reviews did not take place and has apologised for any distress caused. While I consider it would have been better for the Council to carry out the reviews it is not an issue Ms X complained about. It was open to Ms X to have made a complaint before now if she was unhappy with the allowance she was receiving. The Council was paying Ms X at the full allowance less child benefit which she was entitled to claim for so I consider it unlikely she would have received a further increase in allowance. Ms X’s complaints relate to the Council’s decision to reduce her allowance from July 2018.
- The documents provided for the financial review show the Council carried out a means tested assessment which calculated the amount Ms X was eligible to receive. The documents show the Council considered and responded to Ms X’s request for an increased allowance. The Council increased the allowance as an outcome and paid the breakfast club and school meals arrears to help Ms X. The Council also paid the educational support payment from the support plan to help with B’s school trip. There is no evidence of fault by the Council in the way it dealt with the financial review in 2018 and responded to Ms X’s request for financial help from then.
- The Council’s response to her concerns do refer to her issues over working, and it accepted the loss of the breakfast club place would impact on her seeking employment. The response also refers to Ms X’s concerns about the reduced allowance not covering her costs including childcare fees.
- The Council offered to meet with Ms X to discuss her concerns and the family’s support needs. Ms X may wish to reconsider the Council’s offer to meet as it could help progress matters further and help with Ms X’s financial situation. If Ms X continues to have concerns about B’s schooling, then this is an issue she needs to raise with the new council responsible for support since 2018.
- The Council accepts there were delays in communicating with Ms X on occasions. I do not consider the delays excessive and so the Council’s apology is a suitable response for any frustration caused to Ms X.
- I am completing my investigation. I have found no evidence of fault in the way the Council considered a financial review of Ms X’s Special Guardian allowance.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman