05 April 2016

Taking a more balanced approach

The recent report from the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) focused on the benefits of the disabled facilities grant (DFG) programme and how poor administration of the system can lead to difficulties and distress for individual service users. Foundations and the College of Occupational Therapists are concerned that the report presents a rather simplistic and overly negative view that doesn’t accurately represent the breadth and depth of the work currently being completed by professionals in this area.

Delivery of the programme of over 37,000 adaptations per annum is very well received by the vast majority of customers. The 130 complaints received by the LGO in 2014/15 represents just 0.35% of the total. It is important to recognise that on occasions things do go wrong and that these issues should be addressed by all parties involved in the process.

Foundations and the College of Occupational Therapists have a role to highlight and spread good practice.

The first issue addressed in the report is ‘Delay in making a referral’. The report refers to timescales for work – it should be noted that these are not statutory guidelines and that time taken is relative to the extent of the work. A home extension would take far longer than a shower or stair lift to organise. The report also makes no mention of financial issues that impact on DFG work which are often outside of the control of professionals working on the project and result in much needed works not progressing.

We are pressing for co-location or closer working between occupational therapists and grant departments/home improvement agencies (HIAs) to avoid customers being left waiting while the feasibility of an adaptation is considered. We also encourage authorities to give customers an indicative timeframe of how long the process is going to take to minimise frustration.

Complaints of poor workmanship can occur, particularly when people choose their own contractor and project manage the works themselves. In such cases the local housing authority is only responsible for the final sign off of the works; there is no statutory requirement for them to project manage the work or conduct site visits and they cannot prevent a person from using their own contractor to carry out the work.

The report was correct in highlighting the importance of project management in ensuring work is completed in a timely and efficient manner and Foundations encourages all authorities to provide an HIA service to project manage the work on behalf of vulnerable customers and to engage Trustmark registered contractors.

The legislation allows for grants to be given to people whatever their tenure, as the report states, assuming their intention to remain for at least five years and that the landlord has assented to the work. It is sensible in such cases that the local authority explores the possibilities of rehousing. We encourage authorities to hold an ‘adapted housing register’ so that they can allocate property to those in the most need in timely fashion.

In some areas specialist housing options caseworkers and occupational therapists can support people in making a choice of whether to move or stay put. Adopting this system allows the customer to be involved in the process and avoids poor recommendations not meeting need.

The law is clear that equipment and minor adaptations under £1k are provided free of charge. Often, as the case-study in the report shows, costs can be around the £1k mark and we would encourage authorities to exercise their discretion under the Regulatory Reform (Housing Assistance) (England and Wales) Order 2002 to be flexible on this figure so that if costs are just over £1k then it can still be provided for free without a means test. Council tenants are eligible for DFG, although the costs must be met out of housing departments’ own resources rather than the DFG funding provided by Government. In such cases it is uncommon for tenants to be means tested.

The process timescales are only in statute after a completed grant application is received by the housing authority. There may be many reasonable factors which need to be completed from initial contact to grant application, the complexity of which is not addressed within this report. Once the application is received the council has a maximum of six months to approve the application and works must be completed within a year.

The LGO’s report is a welcome addition to the literature recommending best and better practice in the delivery of DFGs but it is our view that it should be presented alongside successes within the sector to provide some balance for the reader.

The government has increased investment in DFG from £220m in 2015-16 to £395m in 2016-17 rising to over £500m in 2019-20. We expect this increased investment will significantly address most of the issues highlighted in the report. Foundations and the College of Occupational Therapists will be supporting local authorities in improving practice in DFG delivery. Our recent report on adaptations highlighting best practice is available here.

We will be debating the future of DFG at the HIA National Conference on 20 April.

Paul Smith is director of Foundations and Julia Skelton is director of professional operations at the College of Occupational Therapists.

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