Birmingham City Council (18 018 692)

Category : Benefits and tax > Local welfare payments

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 01 Aug 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss X complained about how the Council dealt with her application for discretionary housing payment. She says delays and mistakes caused her distress and to miss out on help. The Council made its decision not to award the payment correctly. However its delay in reviewing the decision and inadequate, inconsistent explanation of that decision caused Miss X avoidable distress. It has agreed to our recommendations to apologise, make a token payment to acknowledge distress and ensure it gives clear advice to those requesting reviews in future.

The complaint

  1. Miss X complains the Council did not properly consider information she provided about her circumstances when it refused to give her a discretionary housing payment.
  2. She also complains it gave her contradictory information about the reason for its decisions and took far too long to provide information requested and respond to her request for a review.
  3. She complained it sometimes dealt with her without proper regard for her mental health and wellbeing. These mistakes and delays caused her to miss out on the opportunity of help from the Council whose area she moved into.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I spoke to Miss X about her complaint.
  2. I asked the Council questions and considered its replies.
  3. I considered the Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies.
  4. I gave the Council and Miss X the opportunity to comment on my draft decision.

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What I found

Discretionary housing payment policy

  1. Councils can give discretionary housing payments (DHP) if they decide someone needs extra help to meet housing costs. Councils look at the person’s circumstances to decide whether they are eligible. The person can then use payments to help cover costs including rent deposits or rent in advance if they need to move. Councils can award DHP to cover moving costs for someone living in their area to move into another area.
  2. The Council’s policy is to consider giving discretionary housing payments to people if they:
    • Get housing benefit, local housing allowance or universal credit;
    • Currently live in the council area and are claiming from it; and
    • Can demonstrate financial need.
  3. The Council decides if the property the person wants to move to is affordable, considering their circumstances. If the rent is more than it thinks the person can afford it can decide not to award a payment. This is because it does not want to use DHPs to support someone’s move into a property they then will not be able to afford to live in.

What happened

  1. Miss X lived in the Council’s area. The Council had awarded her weekly discretionary housing payments to meet the shortfall between her housing benefit and weekly rent where she lived.
  2. In early 2018 Miss X talked to the Council and a neighbouring authority about wanting to move to live closer to family members. This was important because of her mental ill health and support needs.
  3. In February 2018, Miss X applied for DHP support from the Council. Her application referred to her mental health problems, her savings and debts. She told the Council that although she wanted to move to a more expensive housing area she would use her savings to help with the extra costs and to start paying off debts. She asked for help with rent in advance, deposit and fees.
  4. Later in February, Miss X told the Council the property she was considering had fallen through. She had another property in mind in the neighbouring council area. She said she would give notice on her existing property in the next few days, before the Council had made its decision on DHP.
  5. Miss X moved in March to the new tenancy. The Council wrote to her in March refusing her application for DHP. It said this was because she was not moving to a more affordable property. It said this was because the property rent was above the level of local housing allowance for the area. It explained that although there was no formal right of appeal, Miss X could ask for a review if she did so within one month, providing supporting information.
  6. Miss X called the Council the next day and said she would appeal in writing. She did so in early April, also sending the Council a letter from the mental health trust explaining the move to be nearer family was important on for her health and wellbeing. She gave the Council permission to call mental health services to discuss this further.
  7. Miss X contacted the Council again in April to say she had moved for medical reasons and that the property she had chosen was the cheapest in the area she had to move to. She provided further medical evidence about her needs.
  8. The Council told Miss X it needed her authorisation to contact medical professionals. She had already given this in early April.
  9. The Council replied to Miss X’s review request after three months in July. It said that as she had already moved and covered costs before her application it would not award her a DHP. It made no reference to affordability.
  10. In September 2018 Miss X told the Council she was considering complaining to the Ombudsman. She asked the Council for copies of its decision letter from March. She had to ask again several times in October and November. Each time the Council said it had attached the documents requested, apologising for not doing so before. Each time Miss X says it did not attach the document.
  11. When Miss X complained to us she said she had to borrow money from her family to move and was not able to repay this. She said most of the Council’s contact with her failed to properly consider her mental health.
  12. She said the council into whose area she had moved had told her she needed to apply for DHP first from Birmingham Council and, if they refused, giving reasons, she could apply to it with that information. She said she understood the Council’s decision not to award her DHP but that its contact with her had been unacceptable. Its delays meant she had not been able to apply to the new council for the DHP.
  13. In its reply to my enquiries the Council said its reason for not awarding DHP was that the new property was unaffordable. It accepted its communication with
    Miss X about this did not clearly explain its reason for decisions.
  14. It accepted its review letter in July had not been clear that the reason for refusal remained the unaffordability of the new property. It said it had taken too long to respond to the review request. Its target was to do so within 28 days but a backlog of cases meant it had not done so. It said it should not have needed further authorisation to check Miss X’s medical details as she had given this when she appealed.

My analysis

  1. The Council considered Miss X’s circumstances in deciding not to award her DHP. It had regard to the affordability of her previous property, the local housing allowance in the area she was moving to and the rent level. It considered her savings and debts. It was therefore entitled to decide that the property she wanted to move into was not affordable and therefore not eligible for DHP.
  2. It made this decision promptly and communicated it correctly to Miss X, explaining why she did not qualify. It advised her of her right to ask for a review.
  3. The Council then took three months to review the decision which is much longer than the 28 days it normally expects. It did not explain the reasons or likely duration of the delay to Miss X. When it wrote to her with its decision it did not explain this decision properly. It referred to her already having moved, whereas the reason remained the unaffordability of the new property. This delay and lack of clear reasoned explanation were faults.
  4. To determine injustice caused by these faults, I cannot say that, but for the delay, Miss X would have been successful in applying to her new council for a DHP. It would have been entitled to likewise consider her circumstances and whether the new property was affordable.
  5. However the delay, and faulty explanation caused Miss X avoidable distress. This distress was added to by the Council’s failure to provide copies of its decision correspondence as Miss X requested.
  6. Also it should have been clear to the Council, from Miss X’s submissions about her mental health, that she was more than usually likely to suffer anxiety. There is no evidence the Council considered whether to make reasonable adjustments to its correspondence with her because of this.

Agreed action

  1. Within one month of my final decision the Council will:
    • Apologise to Miss X for distress caused by its delay responding to her review request and for its failure to properly explain the reasons for refusing her review of DHP.
    • Pay Miss X £250 as a token acknowledgement of the distress caused to her by these faults.
    • Update its DHP review procedure to ensure it gives those requesting a review prompt, clear information about when it will complete a review. The review should also ensure the Council gives clear information about the reasons for refusing to award DHP in its response to reviews. It will also ensure the Council properly considers making reasonable adjustments to how it corresponds.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. The Council was not at fault in how it decided not to award Miss X a DHP. It was at fault for how it communicated its review of this decision. It has agreed actions to remedy injustice caused by this fault and prevent its reoccurrence.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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