COUNCILS across the country have been forced to apologise and pay compensation after mishaps in charging for the care of elderly and vulnerable people.

An investigation by Newsquest’s Data Investigations Unit has 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.

More than 50 per cent of the 972 complaints submitted to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman between 2015 and 2019 were upheld.

Cumbria County Council was reported to the Ombudsman twice in the last five years. While it was only found at fault once, on that occasion the authority was left to foot a £19,000 bill.

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."

The complaint upheld against Cumbria County Council came to light in 2017.

An unnamed care home accused the council of not taking responsibility for the care of one of its residents between 2015 and 2016. After the resident moved to the care home in August 2015, it came to light she had insufficient money to meet the costs.

The Ombudsman said: "The care home received an enquiry from a person living abroad concerning a proposed resident. The home dealt with the person as she had power of attorney (POA) over the proposed resident’s welfare. The home’s understanding was that the proposed resident would be self funding. The placement started in August 2015.

"However, after the placement commenced it became clear to the home that the resident had insufficient funds to meet the costs of her residence. The home had concerns about the actions of the person who held POA for the resident. The home contacted the council for information on applying for local authority funding."

The social worker handling the case also raised concerns about financial abuse by the person holding the POA.

However the care home where the resident was staying was closing and the resident was moved to another facility in June 2016.

The Ombudsman said: "The council finally told the care home in August 2016 that it had a private agreement with the resident and the person with Power Of Attorney (POA). So it considered the person with POA was responsible for paying the care home fees. It said it was only involved as part of the safeguarding issues at the time and was not involved with the placement. It would not meet the residence costs."

But the watchdog said the council should have assessed the residents' finances as well as carry out a care or needs assessment of the resident, once it came to light she was unable to pay for her care.

The Ombudsman said: "Had the council carried out a safeguarding investigation and a needs assessment within a reasonable period I am satisfied, on the balance of probability, that it would have found the resident had eligible care needs.

"It would also have found the resident did not have funds above the savings threshold. In these circumstances, I am satisfied the council would have met the costs of her residence in a care home."

The county council was told by the watchdog to compensate the care home for the £19,000 costs it incurred.

A county council spokesman said: "We note the findings of the Ombudsman’s report. The suggested improvements identified by the report have been implemented."

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said the care system was "hideously complex."

She added: "The Government must keep its promise to fix social care, and that must mean a process of refinancing care alongside a process of thorough going reform."

A Department for Health and Social Care spokesman 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.”