North Yorkshire County Council has admitted it has “clear areas for improvement” on how it communicates catastrophic social care costs to residents after an ombudsman found multiple failings over how it suddenly levied a family with £33,000 of fees.
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, which is the final stage for complaints about councils, has ordered the authority publishes the findings of a complaint it has upheld after concluding the council had not communicated its social care charges policy clearly enough and pay the complainant £500 in compensation for the distress it caused.
While setting payments for social care is one of the most contentious areas councils face, only when the ombudsman believes an issue to be of great significance is it that councils are required to publish the findings.
The criticism is the second time in the Tory-led administration’s four-and-a-half year term that the ombudsman has ruled the authority needed to publicly acknowledge its mistakes.
It follows the government’s recent Build Back Better health and social care commitments, which were published last month, which aim to introduce caps on care costs.
It also aims to make changes to the thresholds for means-tested contributions, so people have greater certainty about how much they will pay towards their care.
The government is also proposing to give councils a greater role in administering people’s care and allowing residents to obtain the same rates that the council pays. Under the proposals everyone would have a care account so they can how much they are being charged to make it simpler and more transparent for care home residents.
The latest ombudsman criticism case related to the catastrophic care costs that people may be liable for when they move into permanent care from a home that they own. More often than not a home has to be sold to pay for someone’s care costs or the council can allow a deferred arrangement, where the resident builds up a care bill which is offset against the value of the home which would be repaid when the home was sold at a later date.
The ombudsman’s report states the family of an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s complained after its care bill from the council leapt from hundreds to thousands of pounds a month without notice.
It states when the woman first went to live in supported living accommodation in 2013, she only had to pay £57.20 of the weekly cost of £900 as the council chose to disregard the value of her home to allow her situation to settle.
It was not until 2019, two year’s after the woman’s daughter had moved into her home, that the council wrote to the mother to say a new assessment needed to be made and her second properties would now be taken into account, leaving the family facing the full cost of her care and a £33,000 bill.
The Ombudsman’s investigation criticised the way the council communicated with the mother and daughter, and found it did not give advice and information about the impact of the change in its treatment of the property in the financial assessment.
It also concluded the council was not clear about the detail of its new charging policy, how it applied it, or its reasons for deciding to include the value of the home in the financial assessment.
Ombudsman Michael King said: “When such significant changes are being made to the way a family pays for care, councils must ensure they provide clear, accurate and easy-to-understand advice and information on why those changes are being made.
“In this case, while we cannot say whether the council was right to change the way it assessed the family’s finances, the absence of clear information led to confusion and a loss of trust in the council’s processes.
“I welcome the council’s readiness to accept the recommendations I have made to remedy the situation for this family, and the wider steps it will now take to ensure other families are not affected in the same way.”
The authority’s executive member for social care, Councillor Michael Harrison, said the report clearly showed failings in the way the council handled the matter and there were “some clear areas of improvement for the council”.
He said: “This case also highlights a national debate about how much an individual should pay for their care and how we treat assets such as a person’s previous home in any financial assessment.”