The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms X complains about the Council’s decision to not backdate her food allowance payments. The Council was at fault for failing to make sure residents were aware of the food payments. This resulted in Ms X not applying for the food payment until she was told by the Council, causing her to miss out on a backdated claim. The Council has agreed to backdate her food payments to remedy the injustice caused.
- The complainant, whom I refer to as Ms X, complains the about the Council’s decision to not backdate her food allowance payments from when she moved into a serviced apartment.
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 this investigation:
- I considered the complaint made by Ms X and the responses from the Council.
- I discussed the complaint with Ms X over the telephone.
- I made enquiries to the Council and considered the information received in response.
- I sent a draft of this decision to Ms X and the Council and considered comments received in response.
What I found
- After the Grenfell fire on 14 June 2017 the Council put together support for people affected by the fire. This included a Key Worker Scheme where the Council provided Key Workers to families and residents affected and financial support for food and travel.
- In July 2017 the Council told Key Workers about the food and travel support so they could pass this onto the residents they were supporting.
- The Council also produced a newsletter which it published on its website. This provided details about the support available to residents. The newsletter said adults and children over the age of five in hotels can claim up to £300 per week towards food costs.
- On 8 August 2017 the Council provided further guidance to Key Workers to pass onto residents. This also mentioned the £300 per week per adult available for support with food payments.
- On 15 December 2017 the Council wrote to all residents in hotels and serviced apartments saying an extra £140 was available for residents who were receiving the £300 per week food payments. The Council also sent residents out a handbook. Under the emergency accommodation section (which included hotels and serviced apartments) it said those in hotels will receive £300 per week food allowance.
- On 30 April 2018 the Council produced internal Grenfell Guidance which said £300 per person per week is available to those who are, “In emergency accommodation (hotel or serviced apartment) and not having all hotel meals paid for automatically”. The Council sent this guidance to Key Workers in May 2018.
- Ms X lived in the near the Grenfell Tower block. In June 2017 shortly after the Grenfell fire Ms X went to stay with her daughter. Ms X had three dependent children in her household, her granddaughter and two foster children. One foster child left Ms X’s care in August 2017.
- On 11 July 2017 Ms X approached the Council for help as she could no longer stay with her daughter. The Council referred her to the Key Worker Scheme and agreed to look for alternative accommodation. Ms X moved back into her property near the Grenfell Tower block.
- A few days later the Council assigned Ms X a Key Worker. There was a fire near to where Ms X was living and she was evacuated from this property by the emergency services. Ms X and her household returned to the property when it was safe.
- On 3 August 2017 the Council moved Ms X into temporary accommodation in a serviced apartment. On 19 December 2017 Ms X received a letter from the Council, dated 15 December 2017, about food payments. The letter said £140 was available for those residents living in hotels and serviced apartments and who were claiming the £300 per week food payments.
- On 19 December 2017 Ms X telephoned the Council and asked to claim the food allowance payments for three people. She also asked for the Council to backdate these payments from 3 August 2017. Ms X said the Council told her over the telephone it would process the payments and she gave her bank details.
- Shortly after the Council contacted Ms X to tell her she could not receive food allowance payments.
- In January 2018 the Council assigned Ms X a new Key Worker. Ms X asked her Key Worker if she could have the food allowance payment and if the Council could backdate these from when she moved into the serviced apartment.
- On 19 January 2018 Ms X’s Key Worker contacted the Council’s finance team and asked it to pay Ms X food allowance payments. The Key Worker also asked the Council to backdate food payments from 3 August 2017.
- The Council approved Ms X for food payments and she started to receive £900 per week food payments from 19 January 2018. This amounted to £300 per adult per week. Due to receiving several backdated requests for food payments, in January 2018, the Council decided to put backdated requests on hold so it could decide how to process them.
- In May 2018, the Council decided it would not pay backdated requests for food payments unless the person claiming could show retrospective hardship.
- In June 2018 the Council told Ms X it had rejected her claim for backdated food payments as payment can only be made if a resident can show hardship. As Ms X had a functioning kitchen the Council said proving hardship would be difficult.
Ms X’s complaint
- Ms X complained to the Council as it had not paid her backdated food allowance nor paid towards her granddaughter’s travel costs. Ms X said other people had received these payments.
- At Stage One the Council said Ms X should not have learnt about the support available to her by receiving the handbook. The Council said it should have provided Ms X with information about the support available to her. The Council said it cannot pay food payments and travel costs retrospectively as they are for current need.
- Ms X asked the Council to move her complaint to Stage Two. Ms X said she was not aware of the support available to her until she received a letter from the Council in December 2017 and this is when she applied for the support. Ms X asked the Council to pay her the backdated food and travel payments.
- The Council responded at Stage Two. It accepted there was a delay between Ms X asking for backdated payments and the Council deciding not to pay. The Council apologised Ms X had to make several requests for financial support. The Council said food and travel payments were for current needs and it would not backdate food payments as Ms X was in a serviced apartment.
- Ms X responded to the Council and said she was aware of other residents in serviced apartments who received food payments from when they moved in and believed the Council has discriminated against her. Ms X said the Council has paid her food payments from January 2018, so she did not believe having a kitchen was a criteria to receive payments.
- The Council’s Independent Adjudicator investigated the complaint at Stage 3, in line with its Grenfell Complaints process. The Stage Three investigation found:
- Ms X should receive the Christmas food allowance of £140 per person.
- The Council provided inconsistent information about entitlement to food payments and travel costs and in respect of backdating these.
- Food allowance was given to those people who live in hotels or serviced apartments regardless of any other money they had to purchase food. With backdated claims, a person would need to show they suffered hardship in buying food for the period of the backdate.
- Ms X was entitled to food payments from 17 December 2017 as this was when she first claimed it, until 18 January 2018 (when she started to receive the payment). She was not entitled to receive a backdated food payment from 3 August 2017 as she could not show hardship between 3 August 2017 and 19 December 2017. As part of the Stage Three investigation the Council assessed Ms X’s income for this period.
- The Council had overpaid Ms X food payments for three weeks in April – May 2018 as a foster child left her household.
- The Council accepted Ms X should receive travel costs for her granddaughter and paid her £926.80 to cover a monthly travel card of £111,80 for eight months and nine days.
- Food payments were available to families and residents affected by the Grenfell fire. These were not means tested and residents the Council moved to hotels or serviced apartments were eligible for the payments.
- The Council is at fault for not making Ms X aware of the availability of food payments when she moved into a serviced apartment. The Council moved Ms X into a serviced apartment on 3 August 2017. At this point she became eligible for food payments. The Council did not make Ms X aware of food payments until she received the generic letter sent to all residents in serviced apartments and hotels on 19 December 2017.
- Prior to sending this letter the Council confirmed it had only provided Key Workers with information about food payments to pass onto residents and put a newsletter on its website. I have seen no evidence Ms X’s Key Worker told her about the food payments before 19 December 2017. Relying on Key Workers to tell residents about the availability of food payments may have disadvantaged people whose first language is not English or those with learning disabilities or medical conditions where remembering something verbally might be difficult. In response to the draft of this decision, the Council said it did have a translation service to support Key Workers to communicate messages to residents where English was not their first language.
- The Council also confirmed it had several other backdated requests for food payments towards the end of 2017, so decided in January 2018 to put these on hold while it decided how to deal with them. This may have been because other residents also did not know about food payments until they received the generic letter in December 2017 as their Key Workers did not tell them.
- The Council’s decision not to pay backdated food payments unless a person could show hardship for the time of the backdate is unjust. This is because it was the Council’s failure to tell Ms X about food payments which caused her to ask for backdated payments. In addition, the Council is applying different eligibility criteria to a backdated request than a current one. It would have been more appropriate for the Council to ask residents why they could not have asked for food payments sooner.
- As I have found fault I need to consider whether not telling Ms X about the food payments before 19 December 2017 caused her injustice. On balance I am satisfied had Ms X known about the food payments when she moved into the serviced apartment on 3 August 2017, she would have applied for these. This is because once Ms X received the Council’s letter telling her about the food payments she telephoned the Council on the same day to ask for them. Not telling Ms X about food payments when she moved into her serviced apartment caused her to miss out on receiving them from 3 August 2017 until 19 December 2017. It would have been reasonable for the Council to tell residents in serviced apartments and hotels about the support available to them when they moved into such accommodation. It would then be up to the resident to decide whether they wished to accept any of this support.
- In relation to Ms X complaining the Council discriminated against her by not paying her food payments I do not find fault. From the evidence seen, it depended on whether a person’s Key Worker told them about the food payments. Residents who knew about the food payments would have been able to apply.
- Within one month of my final decision the Council agreed to carry out the following and provide evidence to the Ombudsman it has done so:
- Apologise to Ms X for not backdating her food payment to when she moved into the serviced apartment.
- Pay Ms X food payments for three people to cover the period from 3 August 2017 to 19 December 2017. I have calculated this as £900 per week for 19 weeks and 5 days, totalling £17,743.
- Look back at the other backdated requests for food payments the Council received from eligible residents (i.e. those in hotels or serviced apartments) prior to putting these claims on hold in January 2018. Pay residents their backdated claims for food payments if there is sufficient evidence these residents were not told about the availability of food payments before the Council sent its generic letter in December 2017.
- I have completed my investigation and found the Council was at fault for failing to make sure residents were aware of the food payments available. The Council has agreed to carry out the above actions to remedy the injustice caused.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman