The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr D complained the Council made an error when completing an Attendance Allowance claim for his wife. We find the Council was at fault when it sent the referral to an incorrect email address and failed to act when it received an undelivered email notification. The Council has agreed to our recommendations to address the injustice caused by fault.
- Mr D complained the Council made an error when completing an Attendance Allowance claim for his wife (Mrs D). He says the Council sent the application to an incorrect email address which has resulted in Mrs D missing out on over £2,100 of Attendance Allowance. He adds the matter has been ongoing for a long time and it has been stressful trying to resolve it with the Council.
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)
- We may investigate complaints made on behalf of someone else if they have given their consent. (Local Government Act 1974, section 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
- I considered information Mr D submitted with his complaint. I made written enquiries of the Council and considered information it provided in response.
- Mr D and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
- Attendance Allowance is a payment available to people who are of state pension age and have care needs because of a physical or mental disability. It is paid at two different rates and how much a person gets depends on the level of care they need.
- The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is responsible for assessing applications for Attendance Allowance and deciding if someone is eligible.
- The DWP offers a visiting service for people who need extra help to claim benefits. It appoints a visiting officer to visit the claimant and gather more information.
- Mrs D is disabled. The Council completed an assessment of her needs on 12 February 2020. It agreed to refer her to the DWP visiting team for assistance in completing an Attendance Allowance application form.
- The Council completed the referral on 19 February and sent it to an incorrect email address. The email was returned to the Council as undelivered on the same day. The Council did not re-send the referral to the correct DWP email address.
- Mrs D phoned the Council on 26 March for an update. It told her the matter was with the DWP, and it would take six to eight weeks to hear anything further.
- Mrs D phoned the Council again on 22 April. She says the Council told her the matter was still with the DWP.
- Mrs D also phoned the DWP on 22 April and 8 June. She got through to a pre-recorded message on both occasions which said that Attendance Allowance applications were being dealt with, but it would take longer to process due to COVID-19. There was no option available to speak to an operator or leave a message.
- Mr D contacted the Council on 27 July for an update. The Council reviewed the file and contacted the DWP on 3 August. The DWP confirmed it had not received the referral, and therefore the Council would need to send it again. Mr D said he was not happy and wanted to make a complaint.
- The Council contacted Mr D the following day. It explained the officer dealing with the file had sent the referral to an incorrect email address. The email was returned as undelivered, and the officer had failed to re-send the referral to correct email address. The Council agreed to send Mr D its complaint procedure and visit the following week to complete an application.
- The Council completed the Attendance Allowance application form and sent it to the DWP on 11 August. It explained the delay in a covering letter and asked it to consider backdating the claim.
- The DWP awarded Mrs D the higher rate of Attendance Allowance (£89.15 per week) on 17 August.
- The Council issued its response to Mrs D’s complaint on 29 September. It apologised for sending the referral to an incorrect email address and that the officer had failed to deal with the undelivered email notification. It confirmed it had discussed the matter with the officer and taken steps to ensure it would not happen again.
- Mrs D escalated her complaint to stage two of the Council’s complaints procedure. She said she had been severely financially disadvantaged by its mistake.
- The Council issued it stage two response to Mrs D’s complaint on 15 November. It offered her £700 in recognition of the time it had taken to resolve the issue. It also said that Mrs D might not have been aware that it does not complete Attendance Allowance applications and that she could have contacted the DWP directly.
- Mr D emailed the Council and said Mrs D contacted the DWP twice, but there was only the option of a pre-recorded message. He also said the Council did not previously mention that it does not complete Attendance Allowance applications. He asked it to reconsider its offer.
- The Council said it had no direct involvement with the DWP’s process, but it did have a responsibility to correctly pass through a request on Mrs D’s behalf. It reminded Mr D that Mrs D had the right to refer her complaint to the Ombudsman.
- Mrs D remained unhappy with the Council’s response and referred her complaint to the Ombudsman.
- The Council was at fault for sending the DWP referral to the incorrect email address. There was further fault as it failed to deal with the undelivered email notification.
- When our investigations show there has been fault by councils, we aim to remedy personal injustice caused by that fault. Our key principle is that a remedy should, where possible, put someone back someone in the position they would have been in but for the fault we identified. We also might recommend a symbolic payment to acknowledge the distress or difficulties someone has gone through.
- In Mrs D’s case, I find it more likely than not that she would have been awarded the higher rate of Attendance Allowance sooner if the Council had sent the referral to the correct email address and acted on the undelivered email notification. While I welcome the Council’s apology and confirmation it has taken steps to ensure the mistake does not happen again, I do not consider its offer of £700 is sufficient to remedy Mrs D’s injustice.
- The Council says Mr and Mrs D were able to contact the DWP directly. It also says it does not fill in the application form for Attendance Allowance applications. While I note the Council’s comments, Mr and Mrs D were relying on its assurance that it had completed the referral and the DWP had received it. Mrs D phoned the Council on two occasions for updates. I have listened to a recording of the call on 26 March 2020, and the officer assured her the matter was with the DWP, but it was taking longer to process referrals. Mrs D had no reason to doubt the information the Council was giving her, and therefore I would not have expected her to contact the DWP at that stage. Despite this, she did attempt to contact the DWP on two occasions but was unsuccessful in getting through to an operator.
- The Council did not initially complete the Attendance Allowance application form, but instead made a referral for the DWP visiting team to visit Mrs D and complete the application form. I contacted the DWP and asked for more information on when it backdates payments if someone makes a home visiting request and is eligible for Attendance Allowance. It confirmed it backdates payments to the date of the initial request for a home visit. It also confirmed if a referral is made mid-week, it will pay the claimant from the following Monday.
- The initial referral was made on 19 February 2020, which was a Wednesday. Therefore, if the fault had not occurred, it is likely Mrs D would have been awarded the higher rate of Attendance Allowance from Monday 24 February 2020 onwards. The higher rate of Attendance Allowance from 24 February to 5 April 2020 was £87.65 per week. This is 6 weeks at £87.65, a total of £525.90.
- The higher rate of Attendance Allowance from 6 April 2020 was £89.15 per week. Mrs D was eventually awarded it on 17 August 2020. Therefore, I consider Mrs D missed out of 19 weeks of payment, a total of £1,693.85. The Council should therefore pay Mrs D a total of £2,219.75 for 25 weeks of missed Attendance Allowance.
- Mrs D has also experienced distress and upset because of the Council’s faults. I therefore recommend it pays her a further £150 for this injustice.
- To remedy the injustice caused by fault, by 2 July 2021 the Council has agreed to:
- Pay Mrs D £150 for the distress and upset caused by the faults identified.
- Pay Mrs D £2,219.75 which is 25 weeks of missed Attendance Allowance.
- I have found fault by the Council, causing an injustice to Mrs D. The Council has agreed to my recommendations and so I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman