The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has asked Northumberland County Council to reconsider how it supports a man with disabilities who said the council did not consider holiday travel and accommodation costs for his care worker as 'disability related expenses'.
The complainant, who needs care full time, said that without the support of his care worker, he could not go on holiday. He added that he could not afford the costs himself.
In April 2019, the council's new charging regime came into force. The man was concerned that the changes to the policy would mean that he did not have enough money to pay for a holiday.
The council put together a Disability Related Expenditure (DRE) assessment which found that travel and accommodation costs for a carer on holiday did not constitute DRE.
The assessor said these expenses were "not a requirement, but a choice that you make."
The man complained, and the council later agreed that its wording had been unfortunate and over-simplified the issues involved.
In later meetings and correspondence discussing financial support, Northumberland told the complainant that the council is led by outcomes listed in the Care Act and "holidays are not covered by the legislation".
In correspondence with the Ombudsman, Northumberland accepted that the point made in the guidance is clear, "that there may be further kinds of necessary day-to-day expenditure arising as a result of disability which would not be likely to be included in a care and support plan." It pointed out that it had considered this to be items such as the cost of purchasing bath towels for the man.
In addition, the local authority said that "the eligible outcomes listed in [the Regulations] do not include being able to take holidays". It said that it sometimes provided support to people in relation to holidays but that this was, "ordinarily because an assessment has concluded that there is an eligible need for respite care".
It went on to say that: “Since we had not assessed that [Mr X] had an eligible need under the Care Act regulations, which required him to spend money on the costs of taking a care worker on holiday with him, we would not have considered those costs to be DRE."
The council told the Ombudsman the fair and effective way to achieve the objective of funding financial support to take holidays would be through the eligibility criteria, not the rules for DRE.
After seeing the Ombudsman's draft report, the council said that it accepted holiday costs could, in some circumstances, be required to achieve one of the outcomes in the eligibility criteria, but not in this case.
Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: "In this case the man believed that going on holiday independently, without his family's support, was essential both in terms of promoting his independence, and for him to maintain his emotional health. But he needed the support of a carer to be able to do this.
"The council said it had considered his wellbeing, but the evidence shows its decision was consistently tied to the fact that holidays are not mentioned as an eligible outcome in the Care Act.
"While I cannot tell the council what should be considered a DRE, I have asked it to reconsider its assessment of this man's situation and re-examine its inflexible approach to the way it applies its policy."
The report also recommended that Northumberland should apologise to the man and pay him £200 for time and trouble taken to deal with his complaint.
A Northumberland County Council spokesperson said: "We are surprised by the Ombudsman's press release, which does not accurately reflect what they say in their report.
“The council has had an extended correspondence with the Ombudsman about this complaint, which raises important general issues about the law and national policy on social care charges.
“We are very conscious that charging disabled people can have the effect of making it impossible for them to afford some activities which matter to them, particularly if their income comes entirely from social security benefits. However nearly all local authorities do make charges for social care, because without that income they could not afford to provide social care and the other services which they are expected to deliver."
The spokesperson added: “We need to make sure we are being fair when we decide what expenses to make allowance for. We asked the Ombudsman whether their interpretation of the law is that local authorities have a duty to make allowance for holiday-related costs when they assess what disabled people can afford to pay, and they told us that was not what they believed.
“What the Ombudsman's report states is that the written explanations which we gave of our decision in this particular case gave the impression that we had not considered all of the issues which we should have done. This is a criticism of the process which we followed.
“The report does not say we made the wrong decision, or that this kind of expense should always be taken into account. In fact the Ombudsman agreed that it is reasonable for the council to say that it does not ordinarily make a special allowance for holiday expenses, so long as we consider whether there are special individual circumstances."
The spokesperson said the council would make sure that in future it considers fully all arguments which people put forward about their individual circumstances, and explain how it has taken those into account in making the decision.
“The Government announced in September planned reforms to social care funding, to be implemented in 2023 and we hope this will mean disabled people can keep more of their income to pay for activities which matter to them."