IT has been revealed that North Yorkshire County Council was Britain's second-worst local authority for wrongly charging families for care of elderly and vulnerable relatives.

An investigation into the number of complaints received about adult social care charges also revealed councils including Darlington Borough Council and Durham County Council had wrongly charged a number of families.

Over a five-year-period, more than half of the 972 complaints submitted to the Ombudsman against councils across the country, alleged wrongly-paid top-up fees, incorrect invoices and bills issued.

However, in North Yorkshire a total of 22 complaints submitted to the Local Government Ombudsman were upheld between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2019 - the second highest in the country.

Meanwhile across the North-East, the investigation found the following council's had complaints upheld against them: 

  • Darlington Borough Council - 5 complaints upheld
  • Durham County Council - 4 complaints upheld
  • Newcastle-Upon-Tyne City Council - 3 complaints upheld 
  • North Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council - 3 complaints upheld 
  • Gateshead Council - 2 complaints upheld
  • Northumberland County Council - 1 complaint upheld 

The investigation, which looked into reports published by the Local Government Ombudsman, found that in many cases councils were ordered to apologise, pay compensation and refund any wrongly paid top-up fees as a result of distress caused to the families of those affected.

In one report, The Ombudsman said: “People have a right to make informed decisions about care homes. A meaningful choice is not possible if they are not aware of the availability of placements not requiring a top-up."

Under current law, councils can only charge a top-up where a resident explicitly chooses to enter accommodation other than that which the council offers to them, and where that preferred housing is more expensive than the council would expect to pay. 

What the government says

The Department of Health and Social Care says top-ups allow people and their families to make a genuine choice to pay more for a premium service but a person must not be asked to pay a top-up because of market inadequacies or commissioning failures: local authorities must ensure there is a genuine choice for the individual.

'A recipe for not enough cash'

As a result of the findings, Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “The care system is hideously complex and councils haven’t got enough cash to go round, so this is a sure fire recipe for some unfortunate older people and their families to end up paying more for care than they legally should.

"At Age UK we have come across numerous examples of the law in regards to care being breached by councils, sometimes deliberately, at other times by mistake.

"It’s yet another reason why the Government must keep its promise to fix social care, and that must mean a process of refinancing care alongside a process of thorough going reform.”

'We will bring forward a plan for social care this year'

In response to the findings, a Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Putting social care on a sustainable footing, where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, is one of the biggest challenges we face as a society which is why we will seek to build cross-party consensus. 

"We will bring forward a plan for social care this year. The Care Act sets out a framework which councils must consider when deciding what people can afford to contribute towards the cost of their care.” 

What the councils themselves are saying

North Yorkshire: Richard Webb, North Yorkshire’s Director for Health and Adult Services said: “We continue to prioritise spending in all areas that support those children and adults who need the most support.  North Yorkshire has protected adult social care spending to a greater extent than many other councils and now spends 44 per cent of its budget on adult social care.  We urgently need a national solution to the long-term funding of adult social care.

“We continue to make every effort to support adults in need of care and to be accurate and fair in our assessments and charges.  Indeed, feedback from people and families receiving care across the county shows high levels of appreciation for the support given.  However, the pressures on an increasingly complex care system are great. 

“Between January 1 2015 and December 31 2019, 21 adult social care complaints in North Yorkshire were upheld by the Ombudsman.  Of those cases three related to wrongly charging for top-up fees and three related to the incorrect calculation of care fees. 

“The last case upheld by the Ombudsman of wrongly charging for top-up fees was in 2018. Since then our teams have undertaken work and training to ensure improved practice, clearer communication and agreements, responding to questions and concerns promptly and making sure that families understand the implications of top up fees.”

Durham: Lee Alexander, Durham County Council’s Head of Adult Care, said: “All complaints offer us an opportunity to review and improve the effectiveness of our services and we endeavour to learn from our customers’ experiences.  

“Whilst four complaints upheld by the Ombudsman over a five year period represents less than one complaint a year, we acknowledge that any upheld complaint has the potential to represent avoidable distress caused to a service user and their family.  

“Durham County Council has supported on average over 17,000 individual cases by providing adult social services during this period and any complaints need to be considered within this context.”

Darlington: A Darlington Borough Council spokesman said: "We are committed to learning from complaints and work to correct mistakes when they happen."

Newcastle: A spokesman for Newcastle City Council, said: “We supports thousands of people and there are occasions when we do receive complaints and those complaints are upheld.

“Where this occurs we acknowledge this and we work to address any failings that have been identified. This includes learning from complaints and implementing any lessons learned.

“On the rare occasion compensation is paid we value and use the Local Government Ombudsman’s guidance to support the decision we are making.”

  • The Northern Echo has contacted each council for comment