Maidstone Borough Council (19 017 863)

Category : Benefits and tax > Local welfare payments

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 20 Oct 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss X says the Council took too long to determine her Discretionary Housing Payment request, asked for information that was excessive and then paid the award to someone other than her landlord. The Ombudsman has found the Council is responsible for some delay and that it also failed to reply to her communications about this matter. In recognition he recommended the Council apologises to Miss X and reminds staff about the importance of replying to communications from claimants. The Council agreed.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I shall call Miss X, says the Council took too long to assess and award a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) to her and then paid someone other than her landlord. She also says the Council said it would help her with her moving costs and council tax but has not done so. Miss X says the Council’s actions have caused her financial hardship and put her to unnecessary time and trouble.

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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. As part of my investigation I discussed the complaint with Miss X and considered her complaint. I made enquiries of the Council and considered its response, documents it provided and the relevant council procedures. I set out my initial thoughts on the complaint in a draft decision statement and invited Miss X and the Council to comment.

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What I found

Background

Discretionary Housing Payments

  1. A DHP cannot be made to substitute deductions to payments of housing benefit or universal credit (UC) for overpayments or other similar matters.

Maidstone Borough Council Discretionary Housing Payments Policy

  1. This policy explains how the Council will operate its DHP scheme. It says:
  • Claims will be looked at on their individual merits and alongside other policies
  • The scheme can help by contributing towards housing costs where there is a shortfall in meeting them.
  • Payments can also be made to help cover the cost of a move to an affordable home.
  1. It also says the Council will decide the most appropriate person to be paid any DHP; this could be the claimant, their partner or landlord.
  2. The policy sets out how claimants can request a review of the Council’s decisions. It says a review will be carried out within 14 days of it receiving the request and/or any requested information.

Key events

  1. Miss X lived in rented accommodation in Council Y with her three children. She was served with a notice requiring her to leave her home. I understand she approached Council Y for help finding affordable alternative accommodation.
  2. Miss X found a property located within Maidstone Borough Council’s (the Council) boundaries that was cheaper than her former home.
  3. I understand Miss X also changed from receiving housing benefit to Universal Credit (UC) payments.
  4. On 9 July Miss X submitted a claim to the Council for Council Tax Support (CTS) and Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) including help with moving costs. The form included details of her expenditure including payments for car insurance, a loan, credit card and other miscellaneous expenses. The form also advised that Miss X was not receiving any child maintenance payments for her children.
  5. Miss X chased progress of her claim on 16 July. In response the Council emailed Ms X asking her for information about her UC claim. Miss X contacted the Council on 24 and 26 July but received no response. She made a further contact with the Council on 30 July and was advised that her claim could not be progressed until her UC payment details were confirmed on 6 August.
  6. The Council approved Miss X’s claim for CTS on 6 August.
  7. On 7 August, the Council wrote to Miss X refusing her DHP claim. It did so because her loan, credit card and miscellaneous expenses could be reduced and were not a higher priority than paying the rent. It said any claim for moving costs should have been made before Miss X moved. It also advised Miss X to seek child maintenance payments.
  8. Miss X asked for a review of the Council’s decision on 15 August. It asked her on 28 August to provide further information regarding her loan, credit card, car insurance and miscellaneous expenses.
  9. Unhappy with the Council’s actions Miss X made a formal complaint about the delay in dealing with her request, its decision, and the request for additional information which she said was excessive.
  10. The Council replied 10 September. It did not uphold Miss X’s complaint. It said again she should have claimed for a DHP for moving costs before she moved.
  11. Miss X provided the requested information on 13 September.
  12. Miss X chased the Council for an update on the outcome of her review on 23, 26 and 30 September but did not receive a response.
  13. The Council concluded its review on 10 October. It decided to grant Miss X DHP for the shortfall between her UC payment and rent for 13 weeks. The payment would be made every four weeks to Miss X’s landlord. It did not alter its view on her claim for help with her removal costs.
  14. The decision letter did not provide a date for the first payment so Miss X sought clarification. She contacted the Council on 21 and 24 October but received no reply.
  15. The Council wrote to Miss X and her landlord on 28 October clarifying the date of the first DHP payment.
  16. The Council duly made payments of the DHP to Miss X’s landlord. However, he chased payment from Miss X as he had not received them. It was later clarified that Miss X’s landlord wanted the payments made to his son’s letting agents as they were dealing with matters.
  17. In January Miss X reapplied for DHP as her award had come to an end. The Council refused her request as it said that DHP could not be made to cover deductions that were being made from her UC payments.
  18. After Miss X requested a review and the Council became aware her financial situation had deteriorated, it reversed its decision. I understand Miss X is continuing to receive DHP.
  19. Unhappy with the Council’s handling of her request for DHP towards her rent and moving costs Miss X approached the Ombudsman for assistance.
  20. In response to my enquiries the Council refuted it was responsible for delay and says it was caused by Miss X’s failure to not provide requested documentation. It also said that Council Y would have been responsible for advising her on the affordability of her current accommodation and for paying for her moving costs. It said that it only makes payments for moving costs for residents moving within or from its boundaries.

Analysis

  1. Miss X says the Council took too long to determine her claim for DHP in July 2019. It made its initial decision on 7 August, one day after it received confirmation of her UC award. The Council could not determine her request until it had this confirmation. Accordingly, I do not consider the Council took too long to decide the claim.
  2. I note the Council says Miss X contributed to the delay in assessing her request by not providing information it asked for. However, it did not ask her for any additional information until 28 August. Miss X provided this 12 working days later on 13 September. I do not consider this amounted to any significant delay on Miss X’s part especially when the Council took a similar amount of time to request the information after receipt of Miss X’s review request.
  3. Miss X has questioned if the information requested was necessary and says that it was excessive. The Council needs to ensure it directs the limited funds it has for DHP to the households in most need. While I appreciate it was frustrating to be asked for this information, I do not consider it was unnecessary. It allowed the Council to appreciate Miss X’s financial situation and to conclude she warranted assistance.
  4. I am also aware Miss X contacted the Council frequently chasing updates on her claim, subsequent review and payment of her award. The correspondence provided by the Council shows many of her communications went unanswered. While I appreciate Miss X was often chasing updates when little time had passed, she would understandably have been anxious given she was struggling financially. If the Council had advised her of the likely timescale, this would have reduced the need for such frequent communication. It would also have helped manage her expectations and anxiety.
  5. The Council made payments to Miss X’s landlord using the wrong details which caused confusion about whether the payments had been made. As a result, Miss X received a call from her landlord chasing payments. I appreciate this would have been concerning for Miss X. However, the issue was quickly resolved, and she was not led to believe that her tenancy was under any threat. Therefore, I do not consider she was caused significant injustice.
  6. Miss X says the Council told her it would help her pay her moving costs from her former home. She also says that it told her current tenancy would be affordable and did not tell her that she would receive less money by transferring to UC payments. The Council says that it did not advise Miss X on these matters and has no file notes or correspondence regarding them. It says they would have been dealt with by Council Y where she was living at the time. Miss X has not provided any evidence the Council advised her on these issues. I have no reason to doubt the Council’s account especially as such advice would be the responsibility of the authority where she was living. Accordingly, there is no evidence to suggest the Council is at fault in this matter.

Agreed action

  1. I have identified that the Council did not always answer Miss X’s communications to it. The Council’s failure to do so caused Miss X uncertainty as she was unaware what action the Council was taking and what the outcome of her request would be. In recognition of this I recommended the Council apologise to her and remind staff of the importance of replying to communications. The Council has agreed and has told its Customer Service team to explain to CTS and DHP applicants that their applications will not be progressed until their award for UC has been approved. The Council should complete the agreed actions within four weeks of my decision.

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Final decision

  1. I have ended my investigation as the Council has taken action to remedy the fault and injustice I found.

Investigator’s final decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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