Halton council has repaid almost £12,000 to a disabled woman after the Local Government Ombudsman found it had failed to properly manage her finances as her appointee for at least seven years.
The ombudsman also said the council should review some of its appointee arrangements and training around mental capacity, best interests and safeguarding so that decisions about people’s money are correctly made.
It found that Halton had failed to maintain transparent records, meaning it was unable to show it was acting in the best interests of the woman, known as Miss Y, when it received complaints from her family.
The ombudsman asked Halton to repay £11,700 to Miss Y to put her back in the position she was in before it miscalculated a housing benefit overpayment, and refund charges applied from January 2006 until it stopped being her appointee, in recognition of its failure to manage her money properly.
Halton council said it had accepted all of the ombudsman’s recommendations.
The appointee’s role is to manage benefits for a person who lacks capacity. Miss Y’s appointee had been her sister, Miss X. But when Miss Y moved into supported accommodation in 2002, her social worker suggested it would be easier for Halton to take over as appointee because Ms X lived far away.
Role of the appointee
An appointee is responsible for making and maintaining any benefit claims on behalf of someone who is incapable of managing their own finances.
An appointee can be held responsible if benefit is overpaid. The appointee must:
- tell the benefit office about any changes which affect how much the claimant gets; and
- spend the benefit it receives in the claimant’s best interests.
From 2006 to 2013 Miss Y shared supported accommodation and for most of that time she received housing benefit and income support. In addition, her care plan, dated 2007, and subsequent reviews dated 2009 and 2010, stated that she needed support with her finances.
However, while acting as appointee the council failed to identify that Miss Y was being overpaid income support. It also miscalculated her entitlement to housing benefit, which resulted in an overpayment. When both of these errors became apparent the council repaid the amounts, leaving Miss Y with nothing in her account when the family took over her finances again.
Delay in responding to complaint
Miss X contacted Halton on many occasions to discuss her sister’s care and finances. The council said the majority of this contact was with Miss Y’s social worker and it first recorded a formal complaint in April 2013. It accepted that it had delayed in responding to the issues Ms X had raised, and closed the complaint when Ms X did not reply within 20 days.
The ombudsman asked Halton to apologise to the family and arrange an independent external review of its practices for other service users in similar circumstances.
Dr Jane Martin, the Local Government Ombudsman, said: “When acting as financial appointees, councils hold full responsibility for managing the finances of vulnerable people. Their families have every right to believe they should be acting in their relatives’ best interests.
“In this position of trust, councils need to make sure they manage those people’s finances in an effective, accountable and transparent way.”
Halton council said it had accepted all of the ombudsman’s recommendations. A spokesperson said: “The circumstances surrounding this case are complex and not reflective of how the wider service is delivered. While regrettable, it must be stressed that complaints of this nature are exceptionally rare. The council has sincerely apologised to the parties involved.
“As a result of regular service reviews, structures have been changed and internal processes strengthened since these events took place. A recent inspection of the council’s appointeeship arrangements by the independent Office of the Public Guardian concluded that ‘robust’ management procedures were in place.”