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 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.

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 the ombudsman between 2015 and 2019 were upheld.

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 fees.

While Northumberland County Council no longer operates elderly care homes, it does run numerous projects for elderly and vulnerable people in the county.

During the four-year period, one complaint was upheld against the county council.

In September 2018, the council received a complaint from two brothers about distress caused by the authority’s communications with the family. The council admitted the action of the officers did cause unnecessary distress, and paid compensation to the family.

The investigation comes shortly after Northumberland County Council agreed a two per cent rise in the adult social care precept, on top of an overall 1.99 per cent hike in council tax, when agreeing the budget last month for the financial year 2020/21.

A spokeswoman for Northumberland County Council said: “Our adult social care services in Northumberland help around 20,000 people each year and we take pride in providing the highest quality service for our residents. We are aware there are problems in some other parts of the country linked to top-up charging for people in care homes which have resulted in complaints being upheld by the ombudsman.

“The one complaint upheld in Northumberland was about the manner in which we corresponded with the family, and we haven’t had any complaints upheld about the amounts we charge for social care.”

With Northumberland only having one complaint upheld, it was one of the best performing authorities across the country.

The bordering county councils in Durham and Cumbria yielded four and two upheld complaints respectively.

The Department of Health and Social Care said 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.”

A spokesman 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 said councils were 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.