The Local Government Ombudsman decides that a local authority’s resource allocation scheme is ‘incompatible with the Care Act’ and therefore must be abandoned.
Mrs N was receiving support form Wiltshire Council for her son, Mr P, which included respite care and transport to a day centre five days a week. Following the family moving house and a reassessment under the Care Act 2014 Wiltshire informed Mrs N that transport would only be provided for three of the five days, and that the respite provision had been cut from 104 nights to 68.
The council calculated Mr P’s entitlement to respite using a Resource Allocation Scheme called a Matrix Assessment Tool. The MAT calculates a number based on need levels, modifies this by carer provision, divides by bed availability to produce a coefficient which, when multiplied by the original score gives the number of respite nights the person is entitled to. Got it? Wiltshire’s response to Mrs N’s complaint was that due to the MAT figure and the ‘band’ that this put Mr P in, they could not provide more, and in fact that Mr P had been receiving too much.
On the transport reduction Wiltshire’s position was that Mrs N had moved further away, which increased the cost of the transport:
‘…[the family] are residing in an area much further away from the services that her previous assessment noted, contributing to some of the increases in costs of the services Mr P receives. The Council believes it has tried to explore and offer a range of options to assist Mrs N and her family maximise the personal budget they are eligible to receive, but Mrs N has consistently refused to explore these options…’
The LGO found that Wiltshire was at fault in a number of respects, but said in relation to the MAT:
‘The MAT predates the Care Act. Its purpose is to ration available resources. The Care Act requires councils to meet eligible needs. It does not allow rationing for any reason. If a council cannot meet an eligible need, it must pay someone else to meet it.
The MAT is, therefore, incompatible with the Care Act. The Council is at fault for continuing to use it. If the Council has used the MAT in other cases, this will also be fault.’
Regarding the transport, the LGO stated that while Wiltshire may have been entitled to meet Mr P’s needs at a day centre closer to home, the reduction in provision ‘was part of a general withdrawal of provision and a cost cutting exercise’ and not based on any assessment of need. It was therefore unlawful.
The LGO required Wiltshire to reinstate the previous support pending a compliant needs assessment, and also to review other cases for use of the MAT and take any necessary action.
From my days as a local authority solicitor I remember Resource Allocation Schemes being as transparent as mud. While there were certainly a few people in the council that understood the magic workings of the RAS, I was not one of them. While they can be useful to create consistency, the lack of transparency can sometimes create a “computer says no” situation that is fundamentally at odds with the approach required by the Care Act.
This report helpfully reiterates that principle that needs must be met, regardless of the cost, and a person’s personal budget is determined by need. It seems that there are still instances, as in this case, where a person is told ‘this is how much we pay for this particular service and that’s that.’ While RAS’s themselves are not unlawful care needs to be taken that their complexities don’t engender this sort of practice. The lawful approach is to say the RAS figure is a rough guide but if it’s not enough more will be made available.
‘Ceiling rates’ should no longer be a thing. So it is surprising that three years after the Care Act coming into force Wiltshire’s response to this complaint was that their systems prevented them from providing more. Hopefully decisions like this will help all local authorities move towards the needs-based approach required by the Care Act and route out any outdated practices.