East Suffolk Council (19 020 957)

Category : Benefits and tax > Local welfare payments

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 17 Feb 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms T complained that there was fault in the way the Council dealt with her application for a discretionary housing payment. We found the Council was at fault in failing to consider Ms T’s request for financial assistance with fitting carpets in her new property. To remedy the injustice caused, the Council re-considered this request and agreed to reimburse Ms T for the cost of the carpets and pay her £250 in recognition of credit card charges she incurred by having to borrow money to pay for the carpets.

The complaint

  1. Ms T complains that there was fault in the way the Council dealt with her application for a discretionary housing payment. She says that, as a result, she fell into debt and suffered anxiety and ill-health.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  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 have considered all the information provided by Ms T, made enquiries of the Council and considered its comments and the documents it provided. I have also considered the discretionary housing payments guidance manual issued by the Department for Work and Pensions.
  2. Ms T and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

Legal and administrative background

  1. 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.
  2. 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 consider the claimant’s financial circumstances and any other relevant factors.
  3. When someone applies for a DHP they must provide details of their income, capital, expenditure, and any other information the Council considers reasonably necessary.
  4. The Council’s procedure says a DHP can be awarded to help cover a regular ongoing shortfall that is not met by HB or as a lump sum payment to cover one-off housing related expenditure. It says short-term assistance and lump sum payments may be considered in cases where there is a financial barrier to the customer improving their situation. In line with DWP guidance, the Council will consider short-term payments and one-off lump sum payments for those moving to more suitable accommodation. These may include:
    • removal costs;
    • necessary costs associated with moving such as suitable flooring where there are vulnerable household members.
  5. The procedure states the Council may still require details of income and expenditure and may choose to make a contribution rather than pay the full costs where financial assistance is available from other means.
  6. The procedure states that, in the case of a lump sum, payment will be for no more than the costs for which sufficient details or receipts have been provided.

Key facts

  1. On 19 February 2019 Ms T accepted an offer of an adapted property which was more affordable than her existing property and more suitable for her needs as she has a severe disability.
  2. The same day Ms T contacted the benefits team requesting a discretionary housing payment (DHP) to help with the costs of the move. She said she had significant expenses and her savings were very low so she was struggling to meet the cost of moving, purchasing white goods, flooring and decorating. She sent a quote from a removal company for £656. She received no response so she contacted her housing needs officer, Officer X, who advised her to complete the relevant forms either online or at the Council’s offices.
  3. On 22 February 2019 Ms T went to the Council’s offices where customer services staff completed various forms for her because she cannot write for long periods of time. One of the forms was an application for a DHP. The staff members told Ms T that, if she did not hear from the Council, she should book the removal company, pay the charges and keep the receipt.
  4. Ms T says she could not afford to pay for the removals herself and claim the money back afterwards, so she waited for the benefits team to respond to her application. Having heard nothing, she contacted Officer X. She said she was concerned because she did not have enough money to pay for everything. Officer X contacted a charity which provided a cooker and dishwasher for Ms T, but it was unable to help with carpets.
  5. Ms T received the keys to the property on 1 March 2019 and the moving date was set for 7 March. She chased up the Council because she needed funding to put down new flooring and decorate before she moved in. She also needed to book a removal company.
  6. Ms T did not hear from the benefits team so she had to find a cheaper removal company who agreed to move her larger items for £300. Her neighbour agreed to pack up and move her smaller items for £10 an hour and agreed she could pay this by instalments. This took longer than Ms T was expecting and she ended up paying him £600. She also paid for carpets to be fitted and for the property to be decorated.
  7. The benefits team contacted Ms T by telephone on 7 March which was the day of the move so she did not receive the call. She visited the Council’s offices on 11 March 2019 to complain. She says an officer told her she had not provided the removal company’s bank details but the form had not requested this information.
  8. Ms T sent an email to the Council on 13 March 2019 complaining about the lack of communication and saying she had been given contradictory information.
  9. On 14 March 2019 the benefits team manager, Officer Y, responded. She explained that one of the benefit assessors left a message for Ms T on 7 March because she had not supplied bank account details for the removal company she was intending to use and payments for removals are generally paid direct to the company. She said that, as Ms T had ultimately used a different removal company, Ms T needed to provide copies of her bank statements to evidence the payment so the Council could consider reimbursing these costs. She said the Council could not award DHP towards payments for help from individuals such as neighbours or to assist with the cost of new flooring and decorations.
  10. On 15 March 2019 Officer Y telephoned Ms T. She explained that, unfortunately, delays sometimes result in DHPs not being confirmed until after an applicant has moved. She confirmed the Council could consider the £300 bill for removals but would not contribute towards payments for neighbours or the cost of carpets. She confirmed this information in a follow-up email. The same day the Council awarded a DHP of £300 for Ms T’s removal costs.
  11. Ms T made a formal complaint to the Council on 1 April 2019. Officer Y responded at stage 1 of the Council’s complaints procedure. She repeated the information she had previously given.
  12. Ms T escalated her complaint to stage 2 of the Council’s complaints procedure. The Chief Executive responded. He explained the reason Ms T was asked for bank statements was because the Council needed evidence she had paid the removal company. He explained her DHP claim was reviewed on 11 March 2019 but was unsuccessful because the Council did not have any evidence of the payment in the form of a quotation or bank statements. Officers wrote to Ms T explaining this decision and explained she had a right of appeal. The application was reviewed on 15 March 2019 after Ms T provided evidence of payment and a DHP was awarded for £300. The application was therefore processed as soon as the Council had all the necessary information and within the three week period expected to process DHP claims.

Analysis

  1. The Ombudsman is not an appeals body, so it is not our role to substitute our view for that of the Council. DHP’s are discretionary but we will consider whether the Council followed Government guidance and its own procedures and whether it considered all relevant information when reaching its decision. Provided it did so, we cannot question the merits of the Council’s decision.
  2. This was a stressful period for Ms T, and she incurred greater costs in moving home than she had anticipated. She planned to move on 7 March 2019 and expected the Council to process her DHP application before then. The Council has explained that it is not always possible to decide an application before an applicant moves because of the amount of applications it has to consider.
  3. The Council’s procedures do not set out a target response time. It reviewed Ms T’s application within 12 working days of it being submitted. I do not consider this to be excessive.
  4. Ms T says the Council should have paid her the £656 she was quoted by the first removal company because, although she only had to pay the second removal company £300, she also had to pay her neighbour for help because the Council did not make a decision on her application soon enough.
  5. I have already explained that there was not an excessive delay in the Council reaching a decision on Ms T’s application. Although she had previously received a higher quote from another removal company, this did not mean the Council was obliged to make payments up to that amount. There are no grounds to criticise its decision not to make a payment towards the neighbour’s charges.
  6. In addition, I find no fault in the Council requiring Ms T to provide bank statements as proof of payment.
  7. However, I find the Council was at fault in failing to consider Ms T’s request for help with the cost of flooring.
  8. In her email of 14 March 2019, Officer Y stated, “With regards to your comments about new flooring and decorations, unfortunately DHP cannot be considered to assist with these costs”. In her letter of 18 April 2019 Officer Y stated, "You had also sent in receipts for carpets, which again we wouldn't contribute to".
  9. These statements imply the Council will never contribute towards the cost of carpets. Yet its procedure specifically states that it can make a lump sum payment towards “necessary costs associated with moving such as suitable flooring where there are vulnerable household members”.
  10. Ms T is severely disabled and therefore vulnerable. So, the Council should have considered her request for a DHP towards the cost of carpets in accordance with its procedure.
  11. Applications should be assessed on a case-by-case basis rather than a blanket refusal to consider certain items.
  12. I find the Council was at fault in failing to consider Ms T’s request for a DHP for carpets in accordance with its procedure. This caused her a significant injustice as she had to borrow money to pay for the carpets and incurred credit card charges.

Agreed action

  1. The Council agreed to re-assess Ms T’s application for help towards the cost of fitting carpets. Having done so, it agreed to make a DHP.
  2. The Council has also agreed to pay Ms T £250 in recognition of credit card charges she incurred because of having to borrow money to pay for the carpets.
  3. I consider the Council’s actions represent a satisfactory remedy for the injustice suffered by Ms T.

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Final decision

  1. I find the Council was at fault in failing to consider Ms T’s request for a DHP for carpets in accordance with its procedure.
  2. I have completed my investigation on the basis that the Council has agreed to implement the recommended remedy for the injustice caused.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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