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Durham County Council (21 001 062)

Category : Children's care services > Friends and family carers

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 26 Sep 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr and Mrs P complain about the Council’s decision to end Special Guardianship Order allowance payments for their grandchildren. There is no fault in the Council’s decision. The Ombudsman cannot question decisions made without fault.

The complaint

  1. Mr and Mrs P complain about the Council’s decision to end Special Guardianship Order allowance payments for their grandchildren. They complain the Council included disability benefits when calculating their income. They say their Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit have decreased since the Council’s assessment as their daughter is no longer eligible. They are unhappy with the Council’s response to their complaint.

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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 considered:
    • information provided by Mr and Mrs P;
    • information provided by the Council, including papers from Mr and Mrs P’s appeal against the Council’s decision to end their Special Guardianship Order allowance and their complaint.
  2. I invited Mr and Mrs P and the Council to comment on my draft decision.

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What I found

  1. Mr and Mrs P are Special Guardians for their grandchildren. The Council paid Special Guardianship Order allowance until June 2020.

Special Guardianship Order Allowance

  1. A Special Guardianship Order is a court order that gives a carer parental responsibility for a child.
  2. Councils can provide financial support if they consider it is necessary to ensure a Special Guardian can look after a child. The Council must carry out an assessment to determine whether financial support is necessary. The assessment must take account of the child’s needs and the family’s financial resources, including benefits and outgoings.
  3. The Council must review the support provided at least once a year.

What happened

  1. The Council reviewed Mr and Mrs P’s Special Guardianship Order allowance in January 2018 and decided the payments should continue for 12 months.
  2. However, at some time in 2018, the Council changed its mind and decided to end the payments. I have not seen any of the records, assessments or correspondence relating to this decision.
  3. Mr and Mrs P appealed the Council’s decision in November 2018.
  4. The Council undertook a financial assessment by telephone in May 2020 and a panel considered Mr and Mrs P’s appeal in June 2020. The Council says the delay was the result of a backlog of assessments and then the pandemic. The panel upheld the Council’s decision to end Mr and Mrs P’s Special Guardianship Order allowance. The Council made a final payment in June 2020.
  5. Mr and Mrs P complained to the Council in November 2020. They queried the Council’s decision to include disability benefits when calculating their income, and explained their Child Benefit and Child Tax Credits had reduced since the assessment as their daughter was no longer eligible.
  6. The Council responded in November 2020. The Council explained it could not respond through its complaints process since Mr and Mrs P’s letter was “a further appeal with some questions”. The Council answered Mr and Mrs P’s questions.
  7. The Council explained that it undertakes a financial assessment to decide whether Special Guardians are eligible for financial support. If they are, it uses a different assessment, referred to as the Department of Education standardised means test, to decide how much financial support to provide.
  8. The Council did not respond to the “further appeal” aspect of Mr and Mrs P’s complaint.

Consideration

  1. I have considered Mr and Mrs P’s appeal against the Council’s decision to end their Special Guardianship Order allowance and its response to their complaint.
  2. The Ombudsman does not decide whether Mr and Mrs P should receive Special Guardianship Order allowance. This is the Council’s job. My role is to check the Council made its decision properly, taking account of all relevant legislation, regulations, guidance and Council policies.
  3. The Council undertook a financial assessment to decide whether Mr and Mrs P are eligible for financial support. The assessment aims to capture all a family’s income and expenditure. The Council also checked Mr and Mrs P were receiving all relevant benefits. A panel, the SGO Panel, makes the final decision.
  4. I have not seen an explanation of the criteria used by the Panel to make a decision. The Council says each case is considered individually, taking account of all the family’s circumstances.
  5. The assessment concluded that Mr and Mrs P were not in need of support. Their income exceeded their expenditure.
  6. Mr and Mrs P object to the Council including disability benefits when calculating their income. The Council is entitled to take account of disability benefits, so long as it also takes account of any disability related expenditure. I am satisfied the Council’s assessment was sufficiently accommodating to take account of expenditure arising from disability. Mr and Mrs P have not identified any disability related expenditure the Council has failed to consider in their appeal or complaint. They mention the costs of maintaining a caravan which the family uses for respite. The Council has included these costs in the calculation of Mr and Mrs P’s expenditure.
  7. Mr and Mrs P have not identified any other expenses they think the Council should have included or income it should have disregarded in the assessment.
  8. There is no fault in the Council’s financial assessment. The Ombudsman cannot question decisions taken without fault.
  9. In their complaint, Mr and Mrs P said their Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit had changed since the Council undertook the assessment as their daughter is no longer eligible. This reduces their income. I have not seen a response from the Council. However, even with the reduced Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit, the financial assessment still shows Mr and Mrs P’s income exceeds their expenditure. I will not, therefore, pursue the matter.
  10. Should Mr and Mrs P’s financial circumstances change, they should ask the Council for a new assessment.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. There is no fault in the Council’s decision to end Mr and Mrs P’s Special Guardianship Order allowance.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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