Action over Doncaster benefits errors

Failings by council staff who look after vulnerable adults' money led to them receiving the wrong benefit payments.

Doncaster's  Civic Offices.
Doncaster's Civic Offices.

Doncaster Council’s audit committee were told that the Safeguarding Adults Personal Assets team, (SAPAT), manages money for 584 vulnerable adults who do not have the family support to be able to do themselves.

Colin Earl, Head of Internal Audit, told the committee that the group was reviewed after senior managers raised concerns about the level of funds held by SAPAT on behalf of their clients and also the amount of housing benefits and financial support that some were receiving, which seemed at odds with the amounts in their bank accounts.

The failings were caused by a number of issues, including a lack of management direction and a poorly managed case management system.

It was also found that SAPAT had accepted all referrals from social workers, with not enough questions being asked about why the council needed to be involved in individual cases.

This led to each of the 11.5 staff members taking on a case load which was ‘well beyond safe management limits’, according to the SAPAT Responsive Review.

There was also poor understanding of benefit rules and entitlement conditions among staff.

Karen Johnson, Assistant Director of Communities, who has recently taken over the role, said: “It’s a very small service and I think in the past it was very much held in high esteem by people, so much so that just about every case would be referred to them.

“I think what’s happened over time is they became just absolutely inundated with cases, and people were not looking for alternatives for people who couldn’t manage their money.”

She added that the service did not set criteria for which cases they would accept.

“We’ve looked back and you can see that the case workers were going out, seeing the client groups and appropriately managing their money, but over time due to more people being referred the numbers were absolutely ridiculous.

“When we first took over the service there were about 1,000 cases and when we compared that with Leeds we were about two thirds above what they had, so we knew there was something desperately wrong.

“Different information about different clients was also being held in different places so it was really hard to get any true reports about the number of cases they were holding.

“They were taking cases automatically and did not consider if a family member was a better person to look after the money.

“We were giving out tremendous amounts of cash over the counter for clients each week and I didn’t feel that was right as there are more modern ways for people to access their money. That’s all changed now.”

She added that team has now employed three extra staff members on a temporary basis to help deal with these issues.

“We’ve got the scars, but we’ve got to the bottom of what these issues are and we have put a number of processes in place.

“We are working with social workers to get them to look at alternatives so SAPAT is the last option, not the first one. We have seen significant reductions in client numbers and we know exactly how many clients each case worker has.

“We have reviewed all cases and made sure people are claiming the appropriate benefits and paying care fees where appropriate. We feel it is under control, though we know we are not out of the woods yet. We need to continue to work with families and the clients.”

Vice-chair of the committee Richard A Jones congratulated the team for the work they had done and said he hoped all the issues would be resolved in the future.