Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 25 Nov 2019
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms B complains that the Council refused her application for a discretionary housing payment. The Ombudsman finds no fault in the way the Council considered Ms B’s application. In these circumstances, there are no grounds to criticise the Council’s decision not to make a payment.
- Ms B complains that the Council refused her application for a discretionary housing payment.
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 have considered all the information provided by Ms B, made enquiries of the Council and considered its comments and the documents it provided.
- I have written to Ms B and the Council with my draft decision and given them an opportunity to comment.
What I found
Legal and administrative background
- The discretionary housing payments guidance manual issued by the Department for Work and Pensions says a discretionary housing payment (DHP) may be awarded where a council considers a claimant requires further financial assistance towards housing costs and is entitled to either Housing Benefit (HB) or the housing cost element of Universal Credit (UC). The scheme is purely discretionary, a claimant does not have a statutory right to a payment.
- The legislation governing the DHP scheme is the Discretionary Financial Assistance Regulations 2001 (as amended). The Regulations give councils broad discretion but they have a duty to act fairly, reasonably and consistently. In reaching a decision they must take into account the claimant’s financial circumstances and any other relevant factors.
- When someone applies for a DHP they must provide details of their income, capital, expenditure and any other information the Council considers reasonably necessary.
- The Council’s policy says the DHP scheme should be seen as a short-term emergency fund. Its purpose is to allow the claimant to seek advice and make changes to their circumstances which will achieve longer term sustainability of their current home or find alternative accommodation which is more affordable. Awards will be made where the claimant demonstrates exceptional circumstances which can only be alleviated by financial support from the fund where no other alternatives exist. The claimant must show they have insufficient resources, through their income and capital, to meet their ongoing rental liability.
- In reaching a decision, the Council will also consider other factors including:
- the likelihood of an imminent change in circumstances that will increase the level of the HB or UC award;
- whether there has been a recent change of circumstances which has negatively impacted on the claimant’s ability to meet rent payments that were previously affordable;
- the exceptional nature of the claimant’s circumstances; and
- the steps the claimant plans to take to alleviate their position including applying to the Council’s housing register, making changes to their household budget to prioritise their rent payment and ensuring they are on the cheapest available tariff for their utility bills.
- Ms B applied for a DHP in March 2019. She said she needed assistance because her partner had left her in private accommodation and she now had to pay an extra £90 out of her benefits.
- The Council wrote to Ms B requesting supporting documents. Once these were received, an officer considered the application. She calculated Ms B’s income and also her expenses based on the Council’s internal expenses framework which has been devised based on recommendations from auditors to ensure consistency in the Council’s decision making. Based on these calculations, the officer decided that with careful budgeting Ms B could afford the rent shortfall so an award was not appropriate.
- The officer wrote to Ms B explaining her decision. Ms B appealed stating that: the Council had not included pet insurance in her expenses; it had included £30 a month in her income for child support despite the fact that she did not receive this (although it was shown as income on the income support letter she had provided); and she had borrowed money to pay her rent.
- In accordance with the Council’s policy, the decision was reviewed by another officer who requested further information from Ms B. Having considered all the information, the officer decided that, contrary to what Ms B stated on her original application, her partner had never lived with her so there had not been a change in her circumstances which required short-term assistance via the DHP scheme. In addition, Ms B had not registered with the housing options team to join the housing register and was not seeking more affordable accommodation in the private sector. The officer was not therefore satisfied that she was doing everything possible to move to more affordable accommodation.
- The officer wrote to Ms B confirming that the Council’s decision was unchanged. She explained that the purpose of the DHP scheme is to help with short-term, unexpected difficulties in paying rent shortfall which she did not consider applied in this case.
- Ms B complained to the Ombudsman following which the Council referred Ms B’s application to a manager for a further review. The manager considered that, with careful budgeting, Ms B could meet the rental shortfall. The Council therefore remains of the view that an award of DHP is not appropriate in this case.
- I am satisfied the Council complied with its policy and Government guidance when considering Ms B’s application. Having considered all relevant information, it is a matter for officers’ professional judgement whether an award should be made. In the absence of administrative fault in the way officers considered Ms B’s application, there are no grounds to question their decision not to award a DHP.
- I do not uphold Ms B’s complaint.
- I have completed my investigation on the basis that I am satisfied with the Council’s actions.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman