Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 12 Dec 2013
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council acted correctly in reaching a decision not to continue paying a discretionary housing payment to Mr B. I have also found no fault in the way it made housing benefit payments to him or in its decisions to suspend those payments on two occasions.
- Mr B complained that the Council:
- wrongly refused to pay him discretionary housing payment;
- wrongly suspended payment of his housing benefit;
- paid his housing benefit payments two months in arrears.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Ombudsman investigates complaints of injustice caused by maladministration or service failure. I have used the word fault to refer to these. She cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. She must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3))
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered Mr B’s written complaint and I have discussed it with him in a telephone conversation. I have also considered his letters and complaint to the Council and the Council’s correspondence in reply. This includes a formal response to his request for an internal review of the decision. I made enquiries of the Council and I took account of the information I received. I also referred to the Department of Work and Pension’s Guidance Manual on discretionary housing payments and the Council’s own leaflet about discretionary housing payments.
- I sent Mr B a copy of my provisional decision on his complaint. I invited him to respond to this and I took account of his comments.
What I found
- The Council offers these payments in certain circumstances to people who are having difficulty paying their rent or council tax. The applicant must be in receipt of housing benefit and/or council tax benefit. The maximum payment is the difference between the person’s eligible rent and the amount of benefit received. The Council will not normally pay such payments if the applicant could reduce his or her housing cost by moving to cheaper accommodation but it may offer payments for a short period to give the person time to arrange such a move. Applications are considered on merit and each council has a fixed sum available each year. The Council says that if a person has received payments in the past this does not guarantee further payments will be offered, even if the circumstances have not changed.
Mr B’s DHP application and subsequent events
- Mr B first applied for a discretionary housing payment in February 2012 because his housing benefit payment was insufficient to cover his rent. The Council sought additional information about his claim and awarded a DHP from 6 February 2012 to 2 June 2012. Mr B felt the award was too low to meet his needs and the Council agreed to reassess the award in April 2012. He was then awarded a revised and improved payment to run until 5 August 2012. The Council told him this was to help him look for cheaper accommodation because his rent was higher than the maximum housing benefit he was entitled to.
- Mr B then applied for a further DHP on 5 September 2012 to cover the ongoing shortfall in his rent. This time the Council refused his application. Officers decided his non-essential outgoings had increased since his previous assessment and there was no evidence he had tried to find more affordable accommodation. Mr B said he had to spend more on petrol as he was driving a lot when trying to find a job. He also said his pregnant wife and growing daughter both needed more clothes which contributed to his additional spending.
- Mr B submitted an internal appeal against the refusal but the appeal team upheld the Council’s decision. The team stated that the latest information from Mr B showed his weekly income was higher than his expenditure and that should cover any shortfall in his rent. The appeal decision was made on 22 October 2012 and Mr B submitted a complaint to the Council. The Council reviewed the decision but upheld it on 30 October 2012. The decision was based on the merits of the case. I am satisfied the Council carried out the correct process in deciding not to award a second DHP. It is not my role to comment on the merits of the decision itself.
Suspension of housing benefits
- Mr B complained to the Ombudsman that on two occasions the Council suspended his housing benefit payments after he started work. He believed the Council should not have suspended payments immediately because he was not paid immediately for the job he had started.
- The Council said it suspended Mr B’s benefit claim when he found work in November 2012 to avoid an overpayment. It asked him to provide information for his claim to be re-assessed. The Council correctly explained that the decision to suspend his claim was based on Regulation 11 of the Decision Making and Appeals Regulations. Mr B provided the information within two weeks and his claim was reassessed. There is no evidence of fault in this process.
- Mr B’s employment came to an end in January 2013 and he became eligible for Job Seekers Allowance. He told the Council he had found employment again in March 2013 and once again the Council suspended payment of Housing Benefit in order to prevent a potential overpayment, using Regulation 11. The Council asked Mr B to provide information regarding his income and his claim was reassessed within two weeks. There is no evidence of fault in this process.
- Mr B complained that the Council should have paid him a housing benefit “run-on” on both occasions when he started work. This is an extended payment of housing benefit. A claimant who starts work is entitled to receive this if s/he has been claiming benefit for over 26 weeks continuously and then works more than 16 hours per week for at least five weeks. The Council has confirmed that Mr B was entitled to this when he started work in November 2012, and received it. However, he was not entitled to it in March 2013 because at that point he had been out of work for less than 26 weeks continuously. I do not consider there is evidence that the Council is at fault over the way it dealt with this.
Delayed payment of housing benefits
- Mr B said that at the time of his complaint to the Ombudsman he was receiving housing benefit payments. However he also said these payments were being made two months later than they should be.
- The Council said that Mr B’s housing benefit is paid every four weeks in arrears, which is normal practice. In his case the payment is made direct to the landlord. The Council said the claim has been paid since the start of December 2012 apart from two periods of suspension to avoid possible overpayments accruing. Mr B has not made a formal complaint to the Council that his payments are two months late.
- I have seen no clear evidence to support Mr B’s belief that his housing benefit payments are being made two months in arrears. The Council stated that Mr B could raise this as a new complaint if he still feels aggrieved about it.
- Each application for a discretionary housing payment must be assessed on its merits. I am satisfied the Council followed the correct process and was not at fault in the way it handled Mr B’s two applications.
- I have not seen evidence to support Mr B’s allegation that his housing benefit payments have been delayed by two months and so I cannot uphold that part of the complaint.
- The Council was entitled to suspend Mr B’s housing benefit award when his circumstances changed in order to re-assess his eligibility. On both occasions his claim was assessed within a reasonable time. I am satisfied the Council acted correctly in each case.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman