The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss X complained she was given incorrect advice by Transport for London (TfL) about its refund policy when she first asked for a refund on her apprenticeship travel card in April 2020. She is unhappy TfL did not issue a full refund when she asked again in December 2020. The Ombudsman considers there is not enough evidence to make a finding about the advice TfL gave Miss X in April 2020. There was no fault in TfL’s decision not to issue Miss X a full refund. However, there was fault causing injustice when TfL gave Miss X incorrect advice after she complained.
- Miss X complained she was given incorrect advice by Transport for London (TfL) about its refund policy when she first asked for a refund on her apprenticeship travel card in April 2020. She is unhappy TfL did not issue a full refund when she asked again in December 2020.
- Miss X said she would not have continued to use her travel card if TfL had given her the correct advice initially.
- Miss X said she lost about £800 because of TfL’s initial advice.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about councils and certain other bodies. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 25 and 34A, as amended)
- 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 cannot question whether a body’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)
- When considering complaints, if there is a conflict of evidence, we make findings based on the balance of probabilities. This means that we will weigh up the available relevant evidence and base our findings on what we think was more likely to have happened.
- If we are satisfied with a body’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)
- This complaint involves events that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government introduced a range of new and frequently updated rules and guidance during this time. We can consider whether the council followed the relevant legislation, guidance and our published “Good Administrative Practice during the response to Covid-19”.
How I considered this complaint
- As part of the investigation, I have considered the following:
- The complaint and the documents provided by the complainant.
- Documents provided by TfL and its comments in response to my enquiries.
- TfL’s Refund Policy.
- TfL’s Covid-19 Refund Policy.
- Miss X and TfL had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
Normal refund policy
- TfL will refund travel cards that are no longer needed. To qualify, customers must have at least six weeks remaining on an annual travel card, seven days remaining on a monthly travel card, or three days remaining on a seven-day travel card.
- Generally, TfL will not issue refunds on an annual travel card after about ten and a half months’ use. Customers need to apply for a refund within eight weeks of their last journey.
COVID-19 refund policy
- Customers could ask TfL for a refund on their travel card if they were self-isolating or not travelling because of COVID-19.
- To qualify for a refund, customers had to meet the same criteria as at paragraph 12 above. They also had to apply for a refund within eight weeks of their last journey.
- Miss X bought an apprenticeship Oyster card in December 2019. This entitled her to a 30% discount on a travel card. She then bought an annual travel card, costing £1,400.
- She said she only used her travel card for about four months, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- In March 2020, TfL decided to offer refunds to customers who could not travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It gave details about how customers could ask for a refund on its website.
- On 23 March 2020, the Government announced a national lockdown in England to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This meant people had to stay at home and could only go out for essential reasons.
- Miss X said she worked from home at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so she did not need to travel. She contacted TfL by telephone in April 2020 to enquire about a refund. She said the TfL advisor she spoke to told her she was not eligible because she had an apprenticeship travel card.
- Miss X contacted TfL on 3 December 2020 to again ask for a refund, after finding out from family that she should be eligible. She said TfL previously gave her incorrect advice in April. TfL could not trace Miss X’s earlier contact from April. It agreed to issue a refund, but only from 20 October 2020 because Miss X last used her travel card on 19 October.
- Miss X telephoned TfL on 4 December to complain about the lack of refund between March and October 2020.
- TfL wrote to Miss X on 16 December, responding to her complaint. It said, due to its data retention policy, it does not store records for longer than twelve weeks, so it could not locate Miss X’s telephone call from April 2020.
- Miss X brought her complaint to the Ombudsman on 21 December. The Ombudsman referred Miss X back to TfL because it had not completed its complaints process.
- On 2 January 2021, Miss X asked TfL to escalate her complaint.
- TfL responded on 8 January. It said it only stores journey data for eight weeks, so it cannot check any journeys she made previously. It said it posted information about its refund policy on its website, so it was easily accessible. It also said customers must claim a refund within eight weeks of their last journey. It said it therefore could not offer Miss X a refund for any unused days on her travelcard from longer than eight weeks ago.
- Miss X asked TfL for a final response so she could take her complaint to the Ombudsman.
- On 11 January, TfL apologised Miss X was not happy with its previous response. It said she could contact a transport user group if she remained unhappy.
Response to enquiries
- TfL told me it changed its normal refund policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. It posted details about this on its website from the end of March 2020. It gave its staff a guide with instructions about refund requests. TfL said it reverted to its original refund policy in October 2020.
- TfL said it was Miss X’s responsibility to know the terms and conditions before applying for her travel card. It said Miss X could have asked for a refund again between April and December 2020. She intermittently used her travel card during that time. By the time Miss X got back in touch in December, TfL had reverted to its usual refund policy.
- TfL said Miss X was not entitled to a refund when she asked for one on 3 December, because her travel card was due to expire on 16 December. An advisor searched for Miss X’s call from April but could not locate it as six months had passed. It also said the advisor Miss X spoke to in April did not make a record of the call, so there was little evidence for TfL to go on. Nonetheless, TfL exercised discretion and backdated a refund to 19 October when Miss X last used her travel card.
- TfL acknowledged it should have escalated Miss X’s complaint to a manager when she was unhappy in December 2020. TfL is willing to offer Miss X £30 to remedy this.
- TfL also acknowledged an advisor incorrectly referred Miss X to a transport user group instead of the Ombudsman.
- TfL do not have a record of Miss X’s telephone call from April 2020 when she said it advised her she could not claim a refund. I have seen the guidance TfL issued to staff. It does not state that any particular type of ticket, apprenticeship or otherwise, was excluded from the refund policy.
- We make our findings on the balance of probabilities. That means we decide, based on conflicting evidence, what is most likely to have happened. In this situation, Ms X remembers being told she could not claim a refund. On the other hand, TfL has no record of what advice it gave her. Its policy at the time should have triggered advice on how to claim a refund, which Miss X could have done through her online account.
- While I do not dismiss Miss X’s recollections, I am unable to substantiative what took place. I can therefore only put limited weight on her evidence. I do not consider there is enough evidence for me to make a finding, even on the balance of probabilities, about what advice TfL gave.
- TfL said its advisor did not take notes of the call. The fact TfL does not keep telephone recordings longer than six months makes it all the more important for its advisors to record what was discussed in telephone calls on a customer’s account.
- When Miss X contacted TfL again in December 2020 it had gone back to using its normal refund policy. Because there was no record of Miss X’s telephone call in April, and because Miss X’s travel card only had two weeks left to run, TfL did not have to issue Miss X a refund under its policy. It exercised discretion and gave a refund from Miss X’s last journey in October. I have not seen any evidence of fault in that decision.
- The information TfL gave Miss X on 16 December was incorrect. It said it did not keep telephone records longer than twelve weeks. In fact, TfL stores telephone records for six months. This did not result in any injustice to Miss X however because six months had already passed when Miss X contacted TfL in early December. The evidence seen shows TfL did search for Miss X’s telephone call but could not trace it.
- If TfL did give Miss X incorrect advice in April 2020 then it is understandable she continued to use her travel card. However, as there is no record of the telephone call I cannot establish what TfL told Miss X. It therefore follows that I do not recommend TfL further backdate Miss X’s refund to April 2020.
- The fact TfL did not record what was discussed in the telephone call created uncertainty, but only about the advice that was given and whether that advice amounted to fault by TfL, not about whether it acted properly subsequently.
- TfL has accepted fault for not escalating Miss X’s complaint to a manager, and for failing to signpost her to the Ombudsman. TfL will offer Miss X a monetary remedy of £30.
- I do not consider the injustice Miss X suffered warrants a higher payment because TfL did provide a complaint response and Miss X was already aware of her right to complain to the Ombudsman.
- Within four weeks of my final decision, TfL agreed to:
- I have completed my investigation. The Ombudsman considers there is not enough evidence to make a finding about the advice TfL gave Miss X in April 2020. There was no fault in TfL’s decision not to issue Miss X a full refund. However, there was fault causing injustice when TfL gave Miss X incorrect advice after she complained.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman