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Sheffield City Council (19 007 744)

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

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 26 Feb 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There were faults in the way the Council handled Miss B’s housing benefit claim. The Council should apologise and make a payment to her.

The complaint

  1. Miss B complains about the way the Council has handled her claim for housing benefit. She says the delay and faults by the Council meant she did not receive all the benefit to which she was entitled. This meant she had to use her savings and borrow from friends. It increased the stress she is under during what is already a difficult time as she is now homeless.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone can appeal to a tribunal. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to appeal. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(a), as amended)
  2. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  3. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered the complaint and documents provided by Miss B and spoke to her. I asked the Council to comment on the complaint and provide information. I sent a draft of this statement to Miss B and the Council and considered their comments.

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What I found

What happened

  1. Miss B submitted a claim for housing benefit for stays at a back-packer hostel at the end of August 2018. After she made that application she became homeless. The Council has accepted there were faults in how it handled the claim. When Miss B put in information at the end of September it did not allocate it to her claim so no action was taken. And in February 2019, when it reviewed the claim after Miss B had chased it up, the Council wrongly asked her to submit more information when it could have determined the claim. The Council paid her benefit of over £330 in the middle of February which was for various periods in August and September.
  2. Miss B submitted further information in May 2019 about two dates she had stayed at the hostel in August and September. The Council decided the information was provided too late so she was not entitled to housing benefit. The Council wrote to Miss B at the hostel informing her of that decision.
  3. Miss B did not receive the letter and, as she had not heard anything, she complained to the Ombudsman.

Analysis

  1. Most decisions about entitlement to benefit can be appealed to the Social Entitlement Chamber of the First Tier Tribunal). We would normally expect a claimant to do this when the issue in dispute is whether the Council’s decision on their claim is right.
  2. Here the Council has accepted fault in how it dealt with the claim in September 2018. The consequence of that failing is there was a delay of over three months in Miss B receiving the payment of £330. I consider that to be a significant injustice to Miss B which requires a remedy.
  3. Miss B did not receive the letter of 20 May advising of the Council’s decision on the further information she had submitted. This was because it was sent to the hostel which was not her permanent accommodation. The Council has commented about why it writes to claimants – it says that is part of verification of the address given. I understand the Council’s point but here the Council knew this was temporary accommodation. Miss B was homeless and did not have a permanent address. I consider the Council only writing to Miss B without an additional email in these particular circumstances is fault. The Council has now considered the further information Miss B provided and made a further award of benefit of just under £220.
  4. Miss B had signed up on the Council’s website for email notifications of her claim. In responding on this point the Council identified that this option should not have been available on the benefit portal. The Council’s supplier has not been able to find out how this happened but the Council has now ensured that the option is not available and is identifying any other claimants who have signed up for the service. It was wrong that this functionality was enabled and the Council was unaware but I am satisfied the Council is taking appropriate action to resolve the issue.

Agreed action

  1. The Council will:
    • apologise and pay Miss B £200 for the delay in making the payments and the stress and difficulty that will have caused to her;
    • the Council will review how it contacts claimants when their correspondence has been by email; and
    • the Council will complete the review of the claimants who have signed up for email notifications and take appropriate action.
  2. The Council should complete the first of these actions within one month of this decision and the last two within three months and tell the Ombudsman of the outcome.

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Final decision

  1. Subject to further comments by Miss B and the Council, I intend to find there were faults in the way the Council handled Miss B’s housing benefit claim. The Council should apologise and make a payment to her.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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