Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 25 Aug 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complains the Council gave him poor advice about his claim for benefit. The Ombudsman does not find fault with the Council for how it handled Mr X’s change in circumstances and benefits application. The Ombudsman does not find fault with how the Council signposted Mr X to Universal Credit services.
- Mr X complains the Council gave him poor advice about his claim for Housing Benefit.
- Mr X complains this poor advice caused a delay in him applying for Universal Credit, and meant he incurred costs for his housing that would have been covered by Universal Credit had he applied earlier.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by 'maladministration' and 'service failure'. I have used the word 'fault' to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
- 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
- I considered Mr X’s complaint and additional information provided by his representative. I also reviewed information provided by the Council. I considered comments from the Council and Mr X’s representative on a draft of my decision.
What I found
- Housing benefit is administered by local authorities to help people on low incomes with their rent payments.
- Universal credit was introduced in 2013 as a replacement for certain means-tested benefits and is administered by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). It was phased in, with claims accepted from wider groups, on an area-by -area basis. When this process was complete an area became a full-service area.
- Under the Universal Credit Regulations 2014, from March 2018, new claims for housing benefit in the Council’s area were limited to claimants who had three or more children, or living in supported accommodation or of pension age. Any person not within these categories had to claim the housing cost element of universal credit.
Council’s information on Universal Credit
- The Council website has an online application for benefits. This application asks for information on an applicant’s circumstances.
- The application form filters out what benefits an applicant might be applying for based on the information the applicant gives.
- If an applicant is not entitled to benefits for housing related costs, the application will identify this and not allow the applicant to continue the application. It will then signpost the applicant to apply for Universal Credit.
- The Council also has a section of its website explaining Universal Credit services and the eligibility criteria for support.
- The Council also disseminated information about the introduction of Universal Credit into the community and to its benefits officers.
- Mr X had received housing benefit from the Council until October 2018 when he became a student. At this time, his claim to housing benefit was closed.
- Mr X then applied for council tax support due to his student status, and was awarded this benefit.
- In October 2019, Mr X wrote a letter to the Council and said he was no longer a student. In his letter, Mr X quoted the reference number that had previously been used on his council tax support application, and on his previous housing benefit claim.
- Mr X’s letter advised of a change in his circumstances, however it was not clear what he hoped the Council would do with this information.
- Between October 2019 and January 2020, the Council asked for further information from Mr X about his change in circumstances, including evidence of his new occupation.
- The Council processed Mr X’s letter as a change in circumstances for his existing council tax support claim.
- Mr X spoke with the Council about the further information he was providing. It was then identified that the intent of his letter to the Council was to apply for housing benefit.
- The Council told Mr X that housing benefit was no longer awarded by the Council and signposted him to Universal Credit services.
- Mr X complained to the Council and said he had not been told to apply for Universal Credit sooner. This meant he incurred debt as he thought he was waiting for housing benefit to be awarded.
- Mr X complained that Council staff had misled him during his claim, and that he should have been told to apply for Universal Credit sooner.
- The Council said there had been no evidence of a further housing benefit claim, and that the information provided by Mr X had been in relation to his council tax support claim. It again signposted Mr X to Universal Credit services.
- Mr X remained unhappy with the Council’s response and complained to the Ombudsman.
- As part of my investigation, I have reviewed the letters and communication between Mr X and the Council between 2016 and 2020. This included Mr X’s initial housing benefit claim, and subsequent closure of the claim in 2018.
- Mr X’s claim for housing benefit was closed in 2018 when he told the Council he was a student. It was at this time that he applied for council tax support.
- When Mr X wrote to the Council in 2019, although his letter gave the reference number for his Council tax support claim and his previous housing benefit claim, it was not clear what Mr X wanted the Council to do with the information he had given. He did not ask to apply for housing benefit.
- As a result, the Council processed the letter as a change in circumstances. This would have only impacted the claims that were currently open. In Mr X’s case, this was his claim for council tax support.
- It is at the discretion of the Council’s benefits officer to decide on applications and change of circumstances information. The Council asked Mr X for further information about his circumstances to ensure that the correction amendments were made to his claim for council tax support.
- Through continuing communication with the Council, it became evident in January 2020 that Mr X’s intent was to claim housing benefit. The Council then signposted him to Universal Credit services and said he would not be entitled to claim housing benefit.
- It is my view that there is no fault by the Council in how it handled Mr X’s application. This is because Mr X did not tell the Council at first that he wished to claim housing benefit. He did not fill out the Council forms which would have identified what he was applying for. His letter to the Council did not advise of a claim for housing benefit, but only of a change in circumstances.
- As a result, the Council officer made the suitable decision to process the letter as a change in circumstances for the only open claim Mr X had.
- Had Mr X used the Council forms to apply, or told the Council of his intent to claim housing benefit sooner, the Council would have signposted him to Universal credit sooner.
- Additionally, I have reviewed the information about Universal Credit that was on the Council’s website and provided to the community at the time of Mr X’s letter to the Council.
- It is an applicant’s responsibility to find out what benefits they may be able to claim. However, there is also a responsibility by the Council to ensure that suitable information is available to applicants about what they may be entitled to. The Council published information about the end of housing benefit and the introduction of Universal Credit in 2018. It was published on the Council website where applications for benefits were usually made by residents. It was also disseminated into the community.
- As it was not clear Mr X thought he was applying for housing benefit until January 2020, the Council would not have advised him to apply for Universal Credit. It is my view the Council provided the suitable advice to Mr X about his right to Universal Credit when it became clear he was seeking housing benefit.
- As part of my investigation, I sought further information from the Council about how it uses reference numbers for claims for council tax support and previous housing benefit claims. The Council advised that although the reference numbers were the same, the numbers are not used to identify single claims, and there are further processes in place to ensure the correct claim is identified.
- However, the Council has said it will review whether the use of one reference number could cause confusion for residents. I welcome this proactive approach from the Council, and I am satisfied the use of a joint reference number did not cause delay in identifying that Mr X sought to apply for housing benefit.
- I have seen no evidence the Council delayed signposting Mr X to Universal Credit services or mishandled an application for support.
- I have now completed my investigation. I find no fault with the Council for how it managed a change in Mr X’s circumstances and benefits application. I also find no fault with the Council for how it gave information about Universal Credit to Mr X.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman