‘No fault’ in Gedling Borough Council’s decision to refuse driving instructor Covid grants

Gedling Borough Council offices
By Andrew Topping, Local Democracy Reporter

The local government watchdog has ruled Gedling Borough Council committed “no fault” when refusing a self-employed driving instructor’s applications for Covid-19 support grants.

A complaint was filed to the Local Government Ombudsman after the instructor, named in the complaint only as Mr M, was unsuccessful in applying for various grants from the council.

Local authorities were given the grants from central Government to administer to qualifying businesses, with several support packages on offer to help struggling companies cope with lockdowns.

Mr M applied for five separate grants to the council, all of which it refused.

However, his complaint related to an application for the Additional Restrictions Grant (ARG), which was refused due to a dispute over when he began trading.

The instructor was required to demonstrate he had been trading before October 1, 2020, to qualify for the grant, but the authority said he was not eligible since his instructor licence was issued on October 12.

Mr M contested this and said that, while he received his licence on this date, he began trading in the weeks “prior to this” having taken payment for lessons before the October 1 date.

Bank statements were provided but the council viewed this was “not classed as the business carrying out the activity for which it was set up”.

Ultimately, after assessing Mr M’s complaint, the ombudsman viewed the council did not break any rules when refusing to give him the ARG payment.

A report published by the ombudsman states: “We can only consider whether the council has taken proper account of the evidence Mr M has submitted, and clearly explained the reasons for its decision.

“I am satisfied it has done so here, and the fact Mr M disagrees with the council’s view does not give me grounds to uphold his complaint.

“I do not consider it would be proportionate for the council to pay grants to people who did not qualify for them, simply for this reason.”

Mr M also complained about the length of time it took the authority to determine his application – more than two months when the advertised period was five days.

But the ombudsman viewed this as not a “significant matter” due to the additional information the council was asking for, and because the length of time did not have a sway on the authority’s decision.

However, the report goes on to address further issues raised by Mr M in his complaint which were upheld by the ombudsman.

It states Mr M was sent an email “in error” inviting him to apply for a different grant “on the basis he had been awarded ARG”.

At the point the email had been sent out, the council had not yet made a decision on whether to give Mr M the grant.

The council then sent an email apologising for the error, confirming his application was still pending determination.

The ombudsman concluded the authority was at fault for “wrongly telling the complainant his application had been successful”, stating however that the council’s apology was “adequate”.

The ombudsman report adds: “I am satisfied this error amounts to fault by the council, and I also accept Mr M was caused some distress by it.

“However, the council very quickly rectified its error and apologised for it, and I consider this is an adequate remedy.”

For this element, the ombudsman upheld the complaint finding “fault causing injustice”, but deemed the council has already remedied the issue.

The complaint will be reviewed by the authority’s cabinet when it meets on Thursday, February 17.

In a report, the council said: “Ultimately, the ombudsman determined there was no fault in how the council considered the complainant’s application for ARG, as it was entitled to decide the evidence did not support his eligibility.

“There was also no fault found in how the council decided his other grant applications.

“The ombudsman did conclude the council was at fault for wrongly telling the complainant his application had been successful, but concluded the council’s quick rectification and apology for this error was an adequate remedy.”

The Labour-led cabinet will decide next week whether any further action should be taken to address the complaint.

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