London Borough of Lambeth (16 016 010)

Category : Benefits and tax > Housing benefit and council tax benefit

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 04 Dec 2017

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There was delay by the Council in changing housing benefit payments to the complainant’s new bank account, but this did not cause him injustice.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr J, complains that the Council failed to change housing benefit payments to his new account. The payments it made went to an overdrawn account which he cannot access. He is now left with rent arrears.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Ombudsman investigates complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. He must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1)).
  2. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended).

How I considered this complaint

  1. I have
    • considered the complaint and the copy correspondence provided by the complainant;
    • made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided; and
    • discussed the complaint with the complainant; and
    • invited the complainant’s comments on my draft decision.

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What I found

  1. The Council was paying Mr J housing benefit which it paid direct to his bank account.
  2. On 17 November 2016 Mr J called the Council to say he was changing his bank. The Council made a note of the call on its system. It noted Mr J said he still had access to his old bank account and it would be closed after a few weeks. The officer noted that he did not suspend the claim or payments because Mr J had access to his old account and “wants the payment to his old account”. The Council advised Mr J to send an email regarding his change of bank details.
  3. The next day Mr J emailed the Council confirming he wanted to change payments to his new account. He gave details of his new account. The Council received the email, but did not act on it until January.
  4. On 3 January 2017 Mr J called the Council. According to the Council’s note of the conversation, he asked for an update about the payment change. The Council noted that it had advised him to allow 14 days for the Council to change the payments. It said that the officer had asked Mr J when he called in November whether he wanted payment to the old account and he had agreed as he had access to it. The note recorded Mr J said the Council should have cancelled the claim on 17 November because he had requested this. Mr J advised that the bank would not give him the payments made to his old bank account, because there was a debt on his account. The officer suspended Mr J’s housing benefit claim and passed a note to the benefits team to assess the change in payments because it was outside its timescale.
  5. On 4 January 2017 the Council revised payments to Mr J’s new account. In the time between 18 November 2016 and 4 January 2017, it had paid three housing benefit payments to Mr J’s old account. These totalled £570.
  6. Mr J complained to the Council in February. He said he did not receive four payments of housing benefit the Council made after his email requesting it changed payment to his new bank account. He said the payments were sent to the old closed account. As this was a closed account in arrears he could not access the money. Mr J said this was negligence by the Council. When he called the Council, Mr J said that the officer was blunt and patronising and tried to blame him. He asked the Council to pay him the housing benefit it had paid to the old bank account.
  7. The Council replied at stage one of its procedure. It apologised for the delay in changing the payments to his new account. However, it said it could not pay housing benefit again for the same period, because benefit could not be paid twice. It also explained that when he had first called the Council, he had confirmed he still had access to his old account. Therefore, the Council did not suspend payments as this would have put him in rent arrears. The Council recognised that his previous bank would not return the payments. However, it considered that the payments were made correctly.
  8. Mr J complained further. He said it was wrong that the Council admitted negligence but failed to put right its error. He said that the account was closed and the bank would not pay him the housing benefit payments. He said that this was why he had emailed the Council so quickly to ask it to change payments to his new account. He said he had not told the Council he could still access the account. He said it would make no sense for him to have done this. When he called the Council again the officer tried to put the blame on him, and was hostile and patronising. He asked the Council to review its decision and said that the worry and anxiety were affecting his health.
  9. The Council replied at stage two of its procedure in March. It explained that it would normally suspend a housing benefit claim if the claimant was changing banks. But in Mr J’s case it was unclear because its notes of the call showed that he could still access the old account. The officer noted the Council did not suspend benefit because of this. The Council explained that it would normally aim to change bank details within four weeks. It apologised that it took six weeks to take action and revise his bank details after the Christmas and New Year holiday. The Council confirmed that it made three payments, not four after it received his request. The Council said that Mr J had not emphasised that his old bank account was in arrears and closed when he called. If he had, the Council said that the officer would probably have suspended his claim. The Council repeated that housing benefit regulations did not allow it to make payments twice for the same period.

Analysis

  1. The Council’s note of its telephone conversation with Mr J on 17 November clearly records Mr J said he could still access the old account. It also stated that the account would “close after a few weeks” and that Mr J wanted payment to the old account. Therefore, I find that there is sufficient evidence for the Council’s decision not to suspend the claim. There is no fault here.
  2. Mr J says that he did not tell the Council it could continue to pay the old account or that he had access to the old account. He says that he sent his email requesting the change the next day to speed things up because the account was closed and in arrears.
  3. The Council does not have a recording of the call, so it is not possible to gather sufficient evidence of exactly what was said to support Mr J’s recollection. I note that Mr J did not state in his email of 18 November that his old account was closed or that he did not have access to it. In addition, he did not check his old account or his new account to see if payments had been made. It was not until January 2017 that he checked his accounts and contacted the Council again about the matter.
  4. There was delay by the Council because it took six weeks to revise the payment details. The Council should have changed the payment details within four weeks. If it had done so this would at least have prevented the third payment being issued. I find this delay was fault.
  5. While I consider there was fault by the Council because of its delay, I do not consider this fault caused injustice to Mr J. This is because benefit was correctly paid to Mr J. He has benefited from the payments, even though this went to a closed bank account. The debt that he had on his old bank account has been reduced by the payment. The Council has apologised for its delay and explained the reasons for its actions. This is a satisfactory remedy. I do not consider the Council should take any further action.

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Final decision

  1. I find there was fault by the Council but no injustice to Mr J. I have completed my investigation and closed the complaint.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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