COUNCILS across the country have been forced to apologise and pay compensation for the distress they caused by wrongly charging families for the care of their elderly and vulnerable relatives.

An investigation by Newsquest’s Data Investigations Unit has found 80 per cent of the 152 councils with responsibility for adult social care have been criticised on at least one occasion by a government watchdog over their poor handling of charging for care services.

Which councils are the worst?

Some local authorities have proven repeat offenders – with councils in Staffordshire, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, The Wirral, East Sussex, Essex and Lancashire ranked as having had the most complaints about charging for care upheld by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman over the last five years.

More than 50 per cent of the 972 complaints submitted to Ombudsman between 2015 and 2019 were upheld.

What were the complaints about?

Many complaints related to top-up fees, while others were about delays in financial assessments being carried out, incorrect invoices and bills issued, and failure to provide clear information about care home fees.

In many cases councils were ordered to apologise, pay compensation and refund any wrongly paid top-up fees and the Ombudsman said in one report: “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.”

Councils can only charge a top-up ‘where a resident explicitly chooses to enter accommodation other than that which the council offers them, and where that preferred accommodation is more expensive than the council would usually expect to pay’.

What are the rules?

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.

Professor Martin Green OBE, chief executive of Care England, said: “The high level of Ombudsman decisions about care funding is a reflection of the fact that there is no clarity about what the citizen has to pay, and what is paid for by government. Social care funding is in need of immediate reform.

"The reforms must include a significant cash injection to stabilise the current system, and a long-term view from government about what the citizen is expected to pay, and what will be funded by the public purse."

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, added: “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.”

What does the government say about it?

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care 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.”

The Department says councils are being provided with access to an extra £1.5bn for adults and children’s social care in 2020/21 to help meet rising demand and stabilise the social care system.

Councils will also be able to raise a further £500m for adult social care through a proposed 2 per cent council tax precept.

How to complain

Anyone unhappy about the way a local authority carries out a financial assessment for charging can make representations through the council's complaints procedure - and if the matter remains unresolved families can ask the Local Government Ombudsman to investigate.