Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 14 Dec 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained Transport for London refused to give him a resident’s discount on the Congestion Charge after it stopped accepting new applications. Transport for London was at fault for failing to consider whether Mr X’s case was exceptional enough to warrant the discount. This caused Mr X unnecessary frustration. Transport for London has agreed to consider whether to exercise its discretion and give Mr X the discount. It will also remind its staff that its policies should allow for consideration of the individual circumstances of each case.
- Mr X complained Transport for London refused to give him a resident’s discount on the Congestion Charge when he moved within the zone. He says this meant he had to pay full price, which he could not afford.
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 Transport for London’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 have considered:
- all the information Mr X provided and discussed the complaint with him;
- Transport for London’s response to Mr X’s complaint; and
- Transport for London’s policies, the Ombudsman's guidance on good administrative practice during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ombudsman's guidance on remedies.
What I found
- Before August 2020, Transport for London (TfL) charged £15-17.50 per day for cars travelling within the Congestion Charge zone. Residents living within the zone could apply for a resident’s discount, which would give a 90% discount off the daily charge for one vehicle.
- As part of its response to the COVID-19, TfL temporarily stopped accepting new applications for resident’s permits from 1 August 2020. The aim of the policy was to reduce traffic in central London which would allow buses to continue making essential journeys and make London safer for pedestrians and cyclists when social distancing.
- In April 2021, Mr X contacted TfL. He said he wanted a resident’s discount and asked it to make an exception to its policy. He said:
- he had been forced to move from his previous home;
- he had a young child and his partner was due to give birth soon; and
- he could not afford the cost of the Congestion Charge.
- his partner’s pregnancy was high risk;
- his partner was not able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine while pregnant and would be unwilling to do so while breastfeeding;
- he needed to travel out of the area they lived in to access his young child’s support network; and
- he needed a car for his work, which involved moving large pieces of equipment.
- It is a general principle of administrative law that public bodies should not ‘fetter their discretion’. This means they should consider whether there are exceptional circumstances that justify departing from usual policy to prevent injustice to applicants whose circumstances place them at a disadvantage. Our guidance on Good Administrative Practice during the response to COVID-19 said organisations should ensure, even when rules changed during the pandemic, that they properly considered the individual circumstances of each case.
- TfL was entitled to change its policy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and stop accepting new applications for resident’s discounts. However, when Mr X asked it to consider whether his circumstances were exceptional enough to justify an exemption to the policy, TfL only responded to confirm its reasons for the policy change. There is no evidence TfL considered Mr X’s personal circumstances and whether they justified departure from its policy. I consider, therefore, that TfL fettered its discretion and was at fault. I cannot say whether TfL should have given Mr X a discount, but its fault in considering his application caused Mr X avoidable frustration.
- Within one month of the date of my final decision, TfL will consider whether it should exercise its discretion to offer Mr X a resident’s discount. If TfL decides to offer Mr X the discount, it will refund him 90% of the total amount he paid on the Congestion Charge since it made its decision to refuse to allow him a resident’s discount in late June 2021.
- Within three months of the date of my final decision, TfL will remind all staff responsible for developing policies about permits and discounts of the importance of such policies allowing proper consideration of the individual circumstances of each case.
Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman