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London Borough of Hounslow (21 003 804)

Category : Children's care services > Looked after children

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 11 Feb 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained about how the Council supported him while leaving the Council’s care. The Council failed to arrange a personal adviser for Mr X when it should have done and unnecessarily delayed investigating Mr X’s complaint. This caused Mr X avoidable uncertainty, frustration, time and trouble for which the Council agree to apologise and pay him a financial remedy. It also agreed to review the training and guidance it provides to its social workers.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complained about how the Council supported him while leaving the Council’s care. He said the Council failed to:
      1. arrange a personal adviser before he left care;
      2. provide him with adequate advice about benefits and renting for the first time;
      3. put into trust an inheritance he received while in care, despite requests from his family; and
      4. refer him to adult social services for an assessment of his needs.
  2. As a result, Mr X said he did not fully understand the impact of signing his first tenancy, causing him to incur rent arrears; he did not understand what benefits he could claim; and that his benefits were later affected when the Council transferred the inheritance to him. He wanted the Council to pay off his rent arrears and refund the other rent he has paid.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated parts a), b) and d) of Mr X’s complaint.
  2. The final section of this statement contains my reasons for not investigating part c) of the complaint.

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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. The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint unless we are satisfied the council knows about the complaint and has had an opportunity to investigate and reply. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to notify the council of the complaint and give it an opportunity to investigate and reply (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(5))
  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 considered the information Mr X provided in his complaint.
  2. I considered the Council’s comments on the complaint and the supporting information it provided.
  3. Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

Care leavers and personal advisers

  1. A Looked after Child (LAC) is any child who is subject to a care order or accommodated away from their family by a local authority under section 20 of Children Act 1989
  2. Councils must provide a ‘personal adviser’ to most looked after children who are in care, or leave care, after turning 16. (Children Act 1989, sections 23A, 23B, 23C, 23CZA and 23CA, and Schedule 2, paragraph 19B)
  3. Personal advisers provide a focal point for coordinating and preparing looked after children to leave care and live independently. They should:
    • provide advice (including practical advice) and support to the young person;
    • take part in reviews of the plan for the young person’s independence;
    • liaise with the council responsible for the implementation of the plan;
    • co-ordinate the provision of services and take reasonable steps to ensure the young person makes use of such services,
    • remain informed about the young person’s progress and wellbeing, and
    • maintain a written record of their contacts with the young person before and after they leave care.

(The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010, regulation 44)

  1. The Council’s policy for supporting care leavers says that it will arrange a personal adviser for young people leaving care between the age of 17 and 18. Before this, the Council says the young person’s social worker is responsible for co-ordinating their care and preparing them for independence.

Complaints about children’s services

  1. The law sets out a three-stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services. At stage 2 of this procedure, the Council appoints an Investigating Officer and an Independent Person (who is responsible for overseeing the investigation). If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the stage 2 investigation, they can ask for a stage 3 review.

What happened

Mr X’s journey to independent living

  1. Mr X was looked after by the Council from a young age. He has a diagnosis of autism and says he finds change difficult to cope with.
  2. Mr X turned 16 in 2017 and the Council began planning for when he would leave care. This included preparing Mr X for living independently and moving into his own home.
  3. Throughout 2018 and 2019 Mr X lived at one of the Council’s children’s homes. During this time, he took part in a programme which involved increasingly long stays in semi-independent accommodation.
  4. In late 2019, shortly after Mr X turned 18, the Council discussed housing options with him and accepted him onto its social housing register. It made a final offer of a suitable property to Mr X in early 2020.
  5. Mr X viewed the property with the support of a keyworker from the Council’s children’s services team and signed a tenancy. Around this time, Mr X asked if he could extend his stay at the children’s home so he could move into his new property gradually. The Council agreed to this.
  6. In March 2020, the Council allocated Mr X a personal adviser.
  7. Around a month later, Mr X asked the Council why he was liable for paying his rent while still staying at the children’s home part-time. He said the Council should have paid for his accommodation at that time, since he was still in a residential placement.
  8. The Council explained to Mr X that, since his tenancy started after he turned 18, he was entitled to claim benefits for help with his rent, if necessary. Mr X replied that he did not properly understand the terms of his tenancy when he signed it, that nobody had explained he would be responsible for his rent while staying at the children’s home and he felt pressured to sign. The Council offered to refer Mr X for benefits advice to help with his rent.

Mr X’s complaints to the Council

  1. With the help of an advocate, Mr X complained to the Council in mid-2020 that:
    • it had not provided him with advice on his benefit entitlement until he was allocated a personal adviser in April 2020;
    • it had not properly told him about his responsibility for paying his rent while still staying at the children’s home; and
    • it had not yet transferred his inheritance to him.
  2. The Council responded to Mr X’s complaint two weeks later. It apologised for the delay in providing Mr X with a personal adviser, but did not think this had an impact on him because he had other support. It also told him that:
    • Mr X’s social worker should have advised him about his possible entitlement to benefits, but this did not happen;
    • the housing officer explained to Mr X his responsibility for paying his rent at the time he signed the tenancy agreement and it was satisfied Mr X understood this; and
    • Mr X had asked the Council to keep control of much of his inheritance so it would not affect his entitlement to benefits.
  3. Mr X’s advocate asked the Council to review its response to Mr X’s complaint about preparing him for renting a property to the stage 2 of the statutory procedure. However, the Council decided that the complaint was one for its housing team instead, so it opened a new stage 1 complaint under its standard complaint procedure.
  4. The Council’s housing team investigated and did not uphold the complaint. It told Mr X that:
    • he had signed the tenancy agreement which “clearly stated the rent is due”;
    • he had paid his first month’s rent, but then stopped paying for several months; and
    • it had arranged affordable payments to repay the outstanding arrears.
  5. Mr X’s advocate asked the Council to reconsider Mr X’s request for a stage 2 review of his original complaint, as this had always been about the advice he received from children’s services in preparing him for renting his first home. However, the Council decided to raise a new stage 1 complaint about this matter first.
  6. The Council investigated this complaint and did not uphold it. It told Mr X it had given him advice and support before he signed his tenancy.
  7. The Council then considered Mr X’s complaint about the support and advice it provided to prepare Mr X for renting independently at stages 2 and 3 of the statutory procedure. At both stages, the Council found there were delays in allocating Mr X a personal adviser, but that this did not cause him to fall into rent arrears.

My findings

a) Arranging a personal adviser for Mr X

  1. In its complaint response to Mr X, the Council accepted it did not arrange a personal adviser for him before he turned 18, as it should have done under its policy. He was not allocated a personal adviser until four months after he turned 18. This was fault.
  2. The law says looked after children who are still in care, are entitled to a personal adviser when they turn 16. Statutory guidance from the Government suggests that, if a young person has a social worker, their social worker can fulfil that role.
  3. However, the typical role of a young person’s social worker and that of a personal adviser are different. If a social worker is fulfilling the role of a young person’s personal adviser before the Council allocates a dedicated adviser, the Council must ensure the social worker carries out the additional duties in paragraph 13 above, including providing practical advice and support.

b) Advice on benefits and renting for the first time

  1. While the evidence from the Council shows Mr X’s social worker planned for and reviewed Mr X’s progress towards leaving care, there was a lack of the practical advice and support a personal adviser would be expected to provide.
  2. In particular, there is no evidence the Council helped Mr X get any advice on his benefit entitlement before he turned 18 or gave him any tailored advice about renting his first property. This was fault. However, I cannot say that Mr X would have been entitled to benefits had he applied sooner, though I accept there is remaining uncertainty about what would have happened.
  3. When Mr X asked to delay moving out from the children’s home into his new home, there is no evidence he was told how this would affect his liability for rent. Mr X was a potentially vulnerable young person, renting for the very first time and without the named personal adviser he should have had to guide him. It is understandable that Mr X was confused by his and the Council’s responsibility while living between the two places.
  4. The evidence shows Mr X paid the first month’s rent after signing his tenancy, before missing several monthly payments after this. I am not satisfied that, had Mr X had a personal adviser at the time, he would not have taken the tenancy and I cannot say that he would have paid all the rent due. Mr X was liable for the rent on his property and this was explained to him by housing staff.
  5. However, I am satisfied renting for the first time as an adult, without the practical support of a personal adviser was difficult and confusing for Mr X. I am also satisfied that incurring rent arrears shortly after moving into his first home was likely made worse by that lack of support. Given Mr X’s possible vulnerability and his diagnosis of autism, this had a more significant impact on him than it would have done for a young person without those difficulties. In the circumstances, the Council’s apology is not a sufficient remedy for the avoidable distress and uncertainty the delays in appointing a personal adviser had on Mr X.

d) Referral to adult social services

  1. Mr X complained the Council should have referred him to adult social services when he left care.
  2. However, I have not seen any evidence that Mr X had any apparent need for care and support as an adult, beyond that provided to care leavers. There is also no evidence Mr X asked for a referral or has received any social care services after becoming an adult. Therefore, I am satisfied there was no reason for the Council to refer Mr X to adult social services on his leaving care, so there was no fault or injustice to Mr X.

Complaint handling

  1. The Council considered aspects of Mr X’s complaints three times at the first stages of its complaint procedures, before investigating further.
  2. The evidence shows Mr X was complaining about the advice he received from children’s services throughout his complaints. However, in my view the Council placed an undue emphasis on how it had responded to Mr X’s first complaint when deciding to open the second stage 1 complaint. It should, instead, have clarified matters with Mr X or his advocate before deciding how to respond to Mr X’s first request for a stage 2 review. This was compounded when the Council opened the third stage one complaint which effectively covered the same points as Mr X’s first stage 1 complaint.
  3. Having considered the complaints Mr X and his advocate made, I am satisfied the second and third complaints were unnecessary and avoidably delayed investigating Mr X’s complaint. This was fault which caused Mr X avoidable frustration, time and trouble.

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Agreed action

  1. Within one month of my final decision the Council will:
    • apologise to Mr X for the avoidable delays in investigating his complaint;
    • pay Mr X £200 for the avoidable distress and uncertainty caused by the delays in providing him with a personal adviser; and
    • pay Mr X £150 for the avoidable frustration, time and trouble, caused by the delays in investigating his complaint.
  2. Within three months of my final decision the Council will review the training and guidance it provides to social workers supporting young people in care about:
    • the duty to provide personal advisers to young people before they leave care; and
    • the separate responsibilities they have where they also carry out the role of a personal adviser before one is appointed under the Council’s policy.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. The Council failed to arrange a personal adviser for Mr X when it should have done and unnecessarily delayed investigating Mr X’s complaint. This caused Mr X avoidable uncertainty, frustration, time and trouble for which the Council agreed to apologise and pay him a financial remedy. It also agreed to review the training and guidance it provides to its social workers.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not investigated Mr X’s complaint about how the Council managed his inheritance.
  2. The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint unless we are satisfied the council knows about the complaint and has had an opportunity to investigate and reply. Mr X complained about this matter to the Council after he complained to the Ombudsman and Mr X has not yet exhausted the statutory complaint process. I consider that it would be reasonable for Mr X to use the statutory complaint process first.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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