Ombudsman criticises council over 94-year-old’s £300 care home charge

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AN ATTEMPT by Scottish Borders Council to charge a 94-year-old woman £300 a week for moving into a care home has been labelled “administratively flawed”.

The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman agreed with the view of the son and daughter-in-law of the pensioner, named only as Mrs A, and upheld their complaint that SBC had wrongly calculated her financial contribution to her residential care.

And Jim Martin also upheld a complaint that the council’s handling of the case was poor, with lengthy delays forcing SBC to apologise and blame staffing issues.

Mr Martin added: “I am particularly concerned that from start to finish, the formal complaints process took over a year.

“I accept that staff absences are unpredictable and unavoidable ... However, it is not acceptable that the absence of a single member of staff halts the progress of a complaint, or any other service, by several months.”

Mrs A rented a property from the council and built up entitlements to allow her to buy a home at a 60 per cent discount in 1989. The other 40 per cent was paid for by her son and daugher-in-law (Mr and Mrs C).

But when Mrs A moved into a care home in 2007, SBC’s review of her income and assets took the value of her property into account, despite her son retaining all the proceeds of the sale under their legal agreement.

The council claimed Mrs A was liable for £300 of the £435 weekly cost of her residential care as, under the National Assistance Regulations Act, she was seen as owning the remaining 60 per cent having “deliberately deprived herself of the property”.

Mr and Mrs C disagreed and their solicitors launched a formal complaint in January 2009.

They argued that Mrs A was still working in 1989 in the family business and was in good health, with no thought made to reducing Mrs A’s future care home costs through the legal agreement.

It was not until January 2010 that the case went before SBC’s Complaints Review Committee who recommended Mrs A’s financial assessment be looked at again, with the sale of her former home not taken into account.

But the council’s executive committee ruled that the three-man review had failed to follow legal advice, leading to Mr and Mrs C taking their case to the ombudsman.

Finding in favour of Mr and Mrs C, Mr Martin concluded: “The legal agreement was worded in such a way as to ensure that all monies obtained through the sale of the property went to Mr and Mrs C.

“The council kept no formal record of their consideration of this issue and provided no evidence of having responded to the (Mr and Mrs C’s) solicitors’ point during the CRC meeting. I would expect this issue to have been key in determining an individual’s financial liabilities.”

Mr Martin added that the council “made assumptions that were not entirely based on the evidence provided”.

He also said SBC’s legal staff were able to influence the process by advising both committees.

Mr Martin recommended SBC hold another complaints review hearing using independent legal advice and said quicker responses must be made following the 12-month delay to Mrs A’s case.

He said no contingency plans were in place to ensure a staff member’s absence did not effect service standards.

An SBC spokesman accepted the ombudsman’s recommendations.

He added: “The complaints system we have in place is designed to ensure all complaints are dealt with fairly, quickly and transparently, and we do aim to acknowledge and resolve complaints within the designated timescales.

“If for any reason we are not able to resolve a complaint, we would always try and ensure an explanation is given as to why this is the case and then try and respond as quickly and efficiently as possible.”