Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 27 Oct 2020
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained about a lack of support from his personal adviser in relation to his housing costs. The Council was at fault for a lack of support in resolving problems with Mr X’s housing benefit claim and assisting him with managing his service charge arrears between April and December 2018. The Council should apologise and pay him £150 for the worry and frustration caused. The arrears have since been cleared.
- Mr X complained the Council failed to provide adequate support to him as a person leaving care, particularly between December 2017 and June 2019, when he was not adequately supported with his housing benefit claim. He said this led to him accruing rent arrears.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- When he complained to the Council, Mr X asked for a change of personal adviser, which the Council agreed. He was unhappy with the pathway plan the previous personal adviser had prepared. The new personal advised revised the pathway plan following discussions with Mr X. Mr X also complained his landlord had refused to reimburse him for a vacuum cleaner and sought reimbursement from the Council. The Council explained why it could not reimburse him and advised him on the action he could take. I have not investigated these aspects because there is nothing further I could achieve for Mr X.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
- We usually expect the person to complain to us within 12 months of the events they are complaining about or within 12 months of the end of the council’s complaints process.
- Mr X complained to us in September 2019. He had not completed the Council’s complaints process at that point, and we referred it back to the Council.
- The complaint was about events from December 2017 when Mr X moved to a new address. He had made a previous complaint to us about the circumstances around that move. I have therefore exercised discretion to investigate the period from April 2018, which is when the current difficulties began.
- 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:
- the information provided by Mr X and the Council;
- relevant law and guidance, as set out below; and
- our guidance on remedies.
What I found
Relevant law and guidance
Relevant care leaver
- Where a young person was looked after by a council, the law says the council must provide continued support to them after they turn 18. This includes developing a pathway plan and keeping that plan under review, and allocating a personal adviser to provide advice and practical support until age 21. (Leaving Care Act 2000)
- A person on a low income can claim housing benefit, which is a payment to help pay their rent. They can ask the council to backdate the payments for up to one month if they have a good reason for claiming late.
- Housing benefit is being replaced by Universal Credit, which is administered by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Universal Credit includes an element for housing costs.
Discretionary housing payment
- Councils can award a discretionary housing payment (DHP) to help people pay their rent if there is a shortfall between their rent and their housing benefit. DHPs are a short-term measure intended to give people time to adjust their finances or move to cheaper accommodation. People do not have a right to DHP payments and councils have a limited budget from which to pay them.
- Mr X was looked after by the Council. English is not his first language. Before he reached age 18 the Council prepared a pathway plan, which said Mr X needed help developing independence skills, including budgeting. A social worker supported Mr X until a personal adviser was appointed.
Housing benefit claim
- The Council provided accommodation for Mr X in a shared house. He moved to a different shared house in December 2017. Mr X signed a licence agreement, which stated he had to pay £143.50 per week for the room, including a £5 per week service charge for utility costs. Mr X had previously claimed housing benefit and the finance team informed the housing benefit team of the new details so the claim could continue. It is not clear why but the housing benefit was not paid and therefore the rent was not paid.
- By March 2018, the arrears were £2,255. The Council later agreed to write off this amount. I understand Mr X made a fresh claim for housing benefit in March 2018 but it was still not paid and the rent arrears continued to build up.
- The Council wrote to Mr X about his rent arrears in early December 2018. Mr X met his personal adviser to review his pathway plan a few days later. The record states Mr X had tried to apply for housing benefit online but not been able to do so. Following this meeting, the Council assisted him to claim housing benefit.
- Mr X was still in arrears because of the period where housing benefit had not been paid. However, in April 2019 he was awarded Universal Credit which was back-dated to December 2018. Universal Credit includes an element for housing costs and the back-payment for this element was used to reduce the rent arrears. In addition, £50 per month was deducted from the Universal Credit payments towards the rent arrears.
- In July 2019 Mr X told the Council the deductions from his Universal Credit were causing financial hardship. The Council considered whether it could write off the arrears but decided not to do so because a large sum had already been written off. It did write to DWP, which administers Universal Credit, to stop the deductions. It also suggested Mr X should claim a discretionary housing payment (DHP) to cover the rent arrears. Mr X made the DHP claim in January 2020.
- After considering the DHP claim the housing benefit team decided that rather than making a DHP it would back-date the housing benefit claim to December 2017. It made a payment to Mr X’s rent account, which cleared the rent arrears. This also meant the Council could return the deductions from Mr X’s Universal Credit in January 2020 and reverse its earlier decision to write off a portion of the rent arrears.
- Mr X moved to new accommodation in January 2020.
- Mr X did not pay the £5 per week service charge. In May 2018, when his pathway plan was reviewed, Mr X was told he owed £190 in unpaid service charges and needed to pay this.
- At a further meeting in December 2018 the Council explained he owed £180 in service charges. Mr X paid £20 towards that debt the same day and agreed to pay at least £2 per week in future to clear the arrears.
- In May 2019, the Council agreed a new plan for repaying the service charge arrears. Mr X agreed to pay £16 that day, a further £25 at the end of the month and then £20 per month until further notice.
- Mr X complied with the repayment plan. He repaid the arrears, and the service charge account is currently in credit.
- In late May 2019, Mr X complained to the Council about:
- its decision not to write off all the arrears, which he said were caused by his personal adviser not taking the action he had agreed to;
- the information it gave him about the repayment plan;
- some issues with his accommodation; and
- concerns about his pathway plan.
He asked it to allocate a new personal adviser, which the Council agreed to do in June 2019. The new personal adviser reviewed the pathway plan with Mr X in July 2019.
- Mr X says he understood his personal adviser would apply for housing benefit on his behalf. In its complaint response, the Council said the personal adviser denied promising to make the claim for him. It said personal advisers would not take over claims but can assist a person making a claim. It said it had no record the personal adviser offered to help Mr X with a housing benefit claim. In its response to my enquiries, the Council said Mr X was aware of housing benefit and had been in contact with its finance team about it in December 2017.
- The Council responded to the issues about the accommodation. It noted Mr X wanted to move to accommodation closer to college and explained there was no accommodation available in that area. It kept the request to move under review but no suitable vacancies have arisen. Mr X was due to start a university course in September 2020 and would need to apply for student accommodation then.
- The law recognises that care leavers are vulnerable and need support. This is why councils need to provide a personal adviser for them. In addition, for Mr X, English is not his first language.
- The Council was aware in March 2018 that the housing benefit had not been paid since Mr X moved to new accommodation in December 2017 and that, as a result, his rent was in arrears. It is unclear why the housing benefit payment was not made. It is also unclear why it was not paid from March 2018 when I understand Mr X made a fresh claim.
- Although I note the Council did waive some of the rent arrears, in the circumstances, I would have expected the Council to offer support to help Mr X resolve the difficulties with the housing benefit claim. I have seen no record to show it did so between March and early December 2018. Its failure to do so was fault. As a result of that fault further arrears built up and Mr X was pursued for payment of the arrears.
- The Council assisted Mr X with a claim for Universal Credit in December 2018. A backdated payment was made in April 2019. From this point deductions were made from Mr X’s Universal Credit. These deductions would not have been needed if the housing benefit situation had been resolved sooner.
- Mr X told the Council in July 2019 the deductions were causing financial hardship. From that point on, the Council was proactive in assisting him to address the rent arrears. There was a delay in resolving this because Mr X did not immediately make a claim for DHP when advised to do so. In January 2020, the Council agreed to pay housing benefit backdated to December 2017. This cleared the rent arrears.
- The Council was aware in April 2018 that Mr X had not paid the service charge, which was also in arrears. It explained to Mr X he needed to pay the charge and the arrears. There is no record the personal adviser followed this up with Mr X between April and December 2018. This was fault. The failure to support Mr X to address the service charge arrears meant that further arrears built up, which was then more difficult for him to repay.
- In December 2018, the Council discussed a repayment plan for the service charge. It agreed a revised repayment plan with Mr X in May 2019. Mr X did need to address the service charge arrears and it was appropriate for the Council to discuss a repayment plan with him.
- Although Mr X complained he had been misinformed about the repayment plan, my review of the records suggests he was confused because there were two lots of arrears. Mr X did not think he should have to pay the rent arrears as he said the personal adviser should have arranged for housing benefit to cover that. However, the housing benefit would not have covered the service charge because this was a payment to cover utilities, which was a separate debt. The Council was not at fault for requiring Mr X to pay the service charge.
- I am satisfied the Council responded to the various complaints Mr X made and did so without delay. Mr X was unhappy with the outcome because he disputed the rent arrears, which he said were the result of poor service from his personal adviser. Although the housing benefit situation was not fully explored during the complaints process it has since been resolved.
- The Council will, within one month of the date of the final decision:
- Apologise to Mr X for failing to properly support him as a care leaver with issues around his housing benefit and service charge arrears between April and December 2018; and
- Pay him £150 for the worry and frustration caused and the financial hardship he said he suffered.
- I have completed my investigation. I have found fault leading to personal injustice. I have recommended action to remedy that injustice.
- Under the information sharing agreement between the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), we will share this decision with Ofsted.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman