The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has uncovered an unusual charging policy during an investigation into a housing complaint about Maidstone Borough Council.
A man, who has disabilities, complained to the Ombudsman that the council wanted to charge him £75 to appeal its decision about joining its housing register.
The man, who uses a wheelchair, told the council his current home was unsuitable for his needs and so he wanted to join the register to bid on an accessible property.
The council considered medical evidence, but decided there was not enough to justify his request for an additional bedroom on medical grounds. But when the man asked the council to review the decision, the council said there would be a £75 charge.
The council’s policy stated those wishing to challenge the medical assessment by way of a second assessment would be charged unless there was a significant change in the medical condition. But the council had no power to make the charge, and anyway, the man did not want to challenge the assessment but the council’s decision based on the assessment.
The Ombudsman’s investigation found fault with the way the council considered evidence, and also failed to follow its own policy by asking him to pay.
The investigation also criticised the council’s review process because it reduced the 21-day period it gives applicants to ask for a review to 14 because of its increasing use of emails and texts. The Ombudsman found that just because it was using these methods more did not mean applicants were and it failed to take account of those with restricted access to the internet or those wishing to rely on the post.
Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:
“If the council routinely asks people to pay a fee on any decision where there has been an assessment by an independent medical advisor, people are potentially losing their right to ask for a review at no cost. Many people in the area may have been discouraged from asking for a review by the outlay.
“I welcome the steps the council has already taken to rectify the situation for the family, and hope the additional recommendations I have made will help ensure other families are not affected by the failings I have identified.”
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. During the investigation, the council has agreed to apologise to the man and carry out a review of his application at no cost.
The council has already carried out the review and has backdated this to 23 November 2017. The review also found the man had not missed out on successfully bidding for properties in this time.
The Ombudsman has also recommended the council pay the man £250 for the distress caused.
The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case, the council should review its allocation policy and the lawfulness of its provision for charging. It should also check its records to see if other people have been similarly affected, and pay refunds where people have been charged. It should review decisions where applicants did not proceed with their review request after they were told about the charge.
The council should also carry out staff training.
Article date: 09 May 2019