DUDLEY Council is among repeat offending local authorities that have been forced to apologise and pay compensation for the distress caused by wrongly charging families for the care of elderly and vulnerable relatives.

The council was among the local authorities with the highest number of complaints about adult social care charges upheld by the Local Government Ombudsman, a Newsquest data investigation has found.

A total of 11 complaints were submitted to the Ombudsman between January 1 2015 and December 31 2019 over the poor handling of charging for care services - nine of which were upheld.

Neighbouring Staffordshire County Council had even more complaints upheld – 25 over the same period.

Nearly half of the complaints made against Dudley Council related to top-up fees, while others related to delays in financial assessments being carried out and incorrect invoices and bills issued, and failure to provide clear information about care home fees.

In one of the cases involving top-up fees, the Ombudsman said there was no evidence any alternative care placement which did not require a top-up had been offered to the family of an elderly woman with vascular dementia. In its response the council claimed a social worker had contacted several care homes to establish vacancies and costs but the Ombudsman said any information allegedly provided to enable the family to find a care home without a top-up should have been recorded in writing.

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.

“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.”

Councillor Nicolas Barlow, Dudley Council’s cabinet member for health and adult social care, said: “The Local Government Ombudsman made a series of recommendations to the council to improve how it manages third party top-up fees in 2018.

“We have implemented the significant majority of those recommendations including improving advice and information for residents and their family members.

“While we’re not able to comment on individual cases, we do ensure all complaints and concerns are listened to and responded to.”

The News, however, has spoken to the granddaughter of an elderly Stourbridge woman, who went into care in 2019, who claims a Dudley Council social worker suggested all homes required a third party top up and that the amounts varied vastly.

The woman said in early conversions she was given no indication the council had an obligation to provide an option for residential care without top-ups. She only discovered this after researching care placements online.

According to the council’s list of approved care homes – only two residential care homes in the borough do not require top up fees and both are in the Dudley area.

There are three nursing homes in the Stourbridge area listed but many elderly people looking to move into a care home do not necessarily need more costly nursing care.

Professor Martin Green OBE, chief executive of Care England, said the Ombudsman decisions over care funding were "a reflection of the fact that there is no clarity about what the citizen has to pay, and what is paid for by government".

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 as regards 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 reform.”