The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms C complained the Council failed to respond to her Free School Meals application and provide the support she was entitled to. As a result, she said she experienced a financial loss. The Council reviewed the case and agreed it was at fault as it used an incorrect National Insurance number to assess her application. It has apologised to Ms C and made payment equal to the amount she would have received in Free School Meals and the Summer Holiday Scheme.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Ms C, complained the Council failed to respond to her request for Free School Meals for her two children and provide her with the support she was entitled to.
- As a result, Ms C says she experienced a financial loss as she did not receive the vouchers she was entitled to.
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)
- 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
- As part of my investigation, I have:
- considered Ms C’s complaint to the Council and its responses;
- discussed the complaint with Ms C and considered the information she provided;
- considered the information the Council provided in response to my enquiries; and
- given Ms C and the Council the opportunity to comment on a draft version of this decision.
What I found
Free School Meals
- National Guidance says some children are entitled to Free School Meals. This includes:
- all infant school children (Reception, Year 1 and Year 2) who attend a Local Authority funded school; and
- other primary and secondary school children if their household is in receipt of certain qualifying benefits.
- Ms C has two children who attend schools funded by the Council. One is an infant school child, and the other is in a secondary school.
- Ms C was working and receiving some Universal Credit. However, in early 2020 her work ended, and her income reduced. So she called the Council to apply for Free School Meals for her children.
- Ms C said she was told by the Council it would contact her when it had considered her application. However, as she did not get a response from the Council, she believed she was not entitled to the Free School Meals.
- In August 2020, Ms C Universal Credit claim was reassessed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). It told her she was entitled to Free School Meals, and she should have received this when she applied to the Council earlier in the year.
- Ms C called the Council to complain. It told her there had been a mistake and it would backdate her entitlement to July 2020. However, it told her she had to contact her children’s schools to receive this.
- When Ms C contacted the schools, she was told they could not backdate the entitlement. This was because she had not been assessed as entitled to the support before the school term ended. However, one of the schools did provide her with a voucher with support from July 2020.
- Ms C complained to the Council. She said she had lost out on Free School Meals during term time and the Summer Holiday for her children due to the Council’s error.
- In response, the Council said it was not possible for the schools to backdate her entitlement and apologised. It said this was because schools had to register entitled families before the end of the school term. It also said it would not be fair on the schools to pay this from their own budgets.
- Ms C was not happy with the Council’s response and complained to the Ombudsman.
- During our enquiries with the Council, it reconsidered Ms C’s complaint. It said it had followed its procedure and checked whether she was entitled to Free School Meals when she applied. However, it had used an incorrect National Insurance number for her, which meant its system wrongly showed she was not entitled. It accepted Ms C would have been entitled to Free School Meals from the date she applied, and she would therefore also have been entitled to the support from the Summer Holiday Scheme. It has apologised to Ms C and paid her the amount she was entitled to receive from the date she applied.
- Mrs C said she is happy with the remedy the Council has provided.
- The Council has agreed it was at fault. This is because it used an incorrect National Insurance number to assess Ms C’s Free School Meals application.
- It agreed Ms C would have been entitled to Free School Meals from the date of her application and the Summer Holiday Scheme. It has apologised to Ms C and make payment to reimburse her for the lost entitlement.
- Mrs C is happy with the remedy the Council provided. I am also satisfied the this is enough to remedy the injustice Ms C experienced.
- There was fault leading to injustice. I am satisfied the Council had has remedied the injustice caused and I have therefore completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman