The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss C complains that the Council has not helped her move out of her current property since she has been the victim of harassment and racist abuse. Miss C also complains the Council has unreasonably restricted her contact. The Council’s handling of the issues reported by Miss C was not affected by fault. Also, the Council’s decision to restrict her contact was in line with the Council’s policy.
- The complainant, who I will refer to as Miss C, says she has been the victim of harassment and racist abuse since March 2018. Miss C says the abuse has included being threatened to be stabbed and racist graffiti on her property. Miss C has a learning disability and also suffers from depression and anxiety but says the Council has not shown any concern about the incidents she has reported or taken appropriate action.
- Specifically, Miss C complains that the Council:
- has failed to investigate and take action in line with the Council’s policy on anti-social behaviour about the abuse and harassment she has reported;
- refused to accept a new homelessness application from her in May 2018 and has not provided reasons for its decision in writing;
- has not given proper consideration to her request for a higher priority to be awarded to her housing register application to take into account the abuse and harassment she has suffered; and,
- has unreasonably placed restrictions on her contact with the Council, which has made it difficult for her to claim the benefits she is entitled to.
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 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 Miss C’s complaint and the supporting information she sent. I have discussed the complaint with Miss C. I have made enquiries to the Council and have considered the information provided by the Council in response. I have also sent a draft version of this statement to Miss C and the Council and have considered the comments I received in response.
What I found
- Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities set out councils’ powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
- When a person applies to a council for accommodation and it has reason to believe they may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, a number of duties arise, including:
- to make enquiries;
- to secure suitable accommodation for certain applicants pending the outcome of the enquiries;
- to notify the applicant of the decision in writing and the right to request a review of the decision.
There is no period of disqualification if someone wants to make a fresh application. Where a person whose application has been previously considered and determined under Part 7 makes a fresh application, the housing authority will need to decide whether there are any new facts which render it different from the earlier application. If no new facts are revealed, or any new facts are of a trivial nature, the housing authority would not be required to consider the new application and can instead rely on its previous decision. However, where the fresh application does reveal a change in relevant facts, the housing authority must treat the fresh application in the same way as it would any other application for accommodation or assistance in obtaining accommodation under Part 7. (section 18.11)
Background 2 – the Council’s housing allocations policy
- Every local housing authority must publish an allocations scheme that sets out how it prioritises applicants, and its procedures for allocating housing. All allocations must be made in strict accordance with the published scheme. (Housing Act 1996, section 166A(1) & (14))
- The Ombudsman may not find fault with a council’s assessment of a housing applicant’s priority if it has carried this out in line with its published allocations scheme.
- The Council’s housing allocations policy uses four priority bands (Low, Medium, High and Priority) to assess and prioritise applications it receives for social housing. The Council will place an applicant in the Priority band if the applicant has an emergency need to move. This includes the following categories: Homeless applicants (owed the main housing duty); Emergency welfare need; Emergency medical need; Complex housing needs; Management need; and, Displaced agricultural workers.
- I have provided more information from the Council’s policy on the Emergency welfare need category as this appears to be most relevant to Miss C’s request to be placed in the Priority band. The Policy provides the following examples of Emergency Welfare Need but the list is not exhaustive:
- Homeseekers who are subject to severe harassment, threats of violence or actual violence or threats of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
- Homeseekers living in a property where the conditions are classified as unsafe or risk of imminent harm which cannot be remedied within a reasonable period of time and not resulting from damage caused by the homeseeker. This criteria will be assessed in partnership with the Private Sector Housing Team.
- Homeseekers living in a property that is statutorily overcrowded. This criteria will be assessed in partnership with the Private Sector Housing Team.
- Vulnerable homeseekers whose social or economic circumstances are such that they have difficulty securing settled accommodation. The homeseeker will have been through their housing options with the council and all other options will have been exhausted.
Background 3 – the Council’s policy on restricting contact
- The Council has a policy for dealing with unreasonable, persistent and vexatious complainants. The policy includes a list of behaviours which the Council uses to decide if a person is being unreasonably persistent. The policy includes excessive telephoning or sending emails to numerous Council staff. It also includes offensive remarks, unwanted physical contact or assault, intimidation, threats, and excessive swearing or foul language.
- The policy says the Council will take action proportionate to the nature and frequency of the person’s contact, including limiting the person to one medium of contact and/or requiring the person to communicate only with one named member of staff. The Council also operates a procedure to be used when banning a member of the public from the Council offices.
Background 4 – the Council’s Anti social behaviour policy and procedure
- The Council has a policy and procedure on anti social behaviour, which includes domestic abuse, hate incidents and harassment. The policy sets out the Council’s aims dealing with harassment and hate crimes which emphasise supporting victims and dealing with perpetrators.
- It says every effort will be made to identify perpetrators and take appropriate action. The policy also sets out the procedure the Council follows when responding to reports of harassment and hate crime.
- Miss C has a learning disability and suffers from anxiety and depression. Miss C has two children. Miss C’s older child only lives with her at weekends.
- In summer 2015 Miss C put in an application to the Council to join the Council’s housing register. The Council placed Miss C’s application in the Low priority band because of her housing related debts.
- In autumn 2017 Miss C put in a homelessness application to the Council after being asked to leave her private rented property. In November the Council provided Mrs C with interim accommodation while it considered her homelessness application. I will call the interim accommodation, ‘Property A’.
- In December the Council made a decision on Miss C’s homelessness application. The Council decided it did not owe Miss C the main homelessness duty because she was intentionally homeless. In January 2018 Miss C asked the Council to review this decision because she did not consider she had made herself intentionally homeless.
- Miss C says on 2 March she was racially abused in a local supermarket. Miss C says the man swore at her, used racist language and launched towards her. Miss C says her son ran away because he was scared. Miss C says the man then pushed a security guard who almost fell over. Miss C says this is all recorded on CCTV.
- On 9 March the Council sent Miss C its decision on her request for a review of its decision on her homelessness application. The review was undertaken by an external solicitor on the Council’s behalf. The review decision upheld the Council’s decision that Miss C was intentionally homeless. The Council said it would continue to provide accommodation for Miss C for a reasonable period at Property A until 6 April. Miss C later put in an appeal to the county court against this decision.
- In mid-April the Council re-assessed Miss C’s priority for re-housing on the housing register. The Council moved Miss C’s application from the Low to the High housing need band because she had two or more medium level housing needs: overcrowding and insecure accommodation. The Council said this was because: Miss C’s rent arrears were cleared by a substantial housing benefit payment; Miss C had maintained a repayment plan for earlier arrears; and, there had been no further complaints of anti social behaviour made against her.
- On 23 April Miss C’s tenancy support worker told the Council Miss C wanted to move out of Property A because she feared for her safety due to the incident in the supermarket. On 27 April Miss C phoned the Council to repeat this request. Miss C then put in a complaint to the Council about the priority awarded to her housing register application.
- Miss C says she then was the victim of a second incident of verbal abuse. Miss C told the Council about this incident on 30 April when she spoke to a housing options officer.
- The Council then arranged a meeting for Miss C with the Council’s anti social behaviour team on 1 May. The Council says its anti social behaviour team made a referral to an organisation which supports people affected by crime (I will call this Organisation A). The Council says it asked Miss C if she wanted additional security at her home. Housing officers also met Miss C on the same day. The Council’s records say the housing officers said they would contact the Police officers investigating the supermarket incident.
- The Council’s notes of its meeting with Miss C on 1 May 2018 say ‘[Miss C] advised that she did not want alternative temporary accommodation but wanted a permanent management transfer today to a property in [a named area]. I explained that she could not transfer as she was a non-secure tenant’. Also: ‘[Miss C] again refused assistance with accessing a refuge and did not want to call her social worker for assistance’.
- On 2 May the Council sent an email to Miss C saying it had made referrals to Organisation A and the Joint Action Group. The Council’s website says all cases which are either high risk or are a hate crime are referred to the Joint Action Group, which is a group made up of representatives from several agencies, including the Police and social services. The Council also asked Miss C to get in touch if she wanted extra security at Property A. The Council has referred to this email as an action plan.
- The Council says it met Miss C again on 3 May at the Council offices to discuss anti social behaviour and housing issues. Miss C told the Council that racist graffiti had been written in the communal entrance to her building and on her kitchen window. The Council says it again offered additional security for Miss C at Property A, which Miss C agreed to.
- The Council says during the meeting on 3 May Miss C became aggressive, raised her voice and banged her fists on the table. Miss C disputes this. The Council also says Miss C accused an officer of physically assaulting her during the interview. Miss C says a Council officer rolled her eyes at her and also kicked her under the table, although she now accepts this was an accident. Miss C also says she later had an anxiety attack in the Council offices but Council officers did not help her.
- Miss C met Council officers again on 9 May to discuss housing and anti social behaviour issues. Miss C told the Council about a further incident when she says she was racially abused by a member of the public in the Council building. The Council says its staff did not witness the incident and Miss C could not identify the perpetrator of the racial abuse. Miss C says the individual was abusive to her again the following day.
- Also on 9 May the Council sent a letter to Miss C saying it had banned her from attending the Council offices for one year without a pre-arranged appointment. The Council said this was because of an incident on 3 May when Council officers felt threatened by her intimidating and aggressive behaviour. The Council said this incident followed several other recent incidents when Miss C was verbally intimidating in the customer service area of the Council offices. The Council added it had decided to add Miss C’s name and details of the incidents to the Council’s Corporate Warning Register. The letter asked Miss C to contact the Council in writing, by email or telephone.
- Miss C also tried to put in a new homelessness application. This was because Miss C knew the law on homelessness changed on 2 April and also because of the abuse she says she suffered at Property A. Miss C says the Council refused to accept a new homelessness application from her.
- On 11 May the Council re-assessed Miss C’s priority on the housing register based on Miss C’s reports of anti social behaviour and information from the Police about these reports. The Council decided Miss C should remain in the High housing need band. Miss C then asked the Council for written reasons why the Council was not taking a further homelessness application from her.
- On 15 May the Council says it installed window alarms at Property A.
- On 17 May the Council’s Joint Action Group discussed Miss C’s case and decided the case should be closed.
- On 21 May Miss C attended a meeting with the Council to discuss her housing situation. The Council provided Miss C with a letter saying there had been no material change in her circumstances which would trigger a new homelessness application.
- The Council placed further restrictions on Miss C’s contact with the Council on 25 May in response to what it has described as an unmanageable about of emails and phone calls from Miss C. The Council said between 14 May and 23 May Miss C had contacted the Council on at least 79 occasions. The Council said this did not include calls from withheld numbers or visits to the Council offices. The Council said it would restrict Miss C’s contact with the Council to email only. The Council also appointed a single point of contact for Miss C’s correspondence. The Council said the decision would remain in place for a minimum of six months. Miss C put in an appeal to the Council against this decision.
- On 1 June the Council responded to Miss C’s complaints about her request for a greater priority for re-housing and the incident on 3 May. The Council did not accept it was at fault.
- On 11 June Miss C’s tenancy support worker told the Council Miss C had seen the man who assaulted her in the supermarket.
- In mid-June the Council reviewed Miss C’s housing register priority again and decided she should remain in the High housing need band. The Council provided an account of the incidents of anti-social behaviour and harassment Miss C reported. The Council said Miss C had provided inconsistent information about these incidents. The Council said none of the correspondence sent by agencies indicated that representatives from these agencies had witnessed these incidents. The Council also said the Police had confirmed it has investigated the incidents reported by Miss C but did not consider her to be at risk or to have an emergency need for housing. Miss C asked for a further review of the decision.
- On 20 June the Council told Miss C it was unable to take further action about the graffiti incident.
- On 12 July the Council applied for a warrant to evict Miss C after the possession order for Property A had expired.
- On 13 July the Council sent Miss C its response to a further complaint she made in late June about the actions of housing officers. Miss C made several complaints including the officers had not responded to her reports of hate crime, criminal damage and threats of violence.
- The Council did not consider it was at fault. On the same day, the Council wrote to Miss C about anti social behaviour to provide advice and set out the action taken by the Council. The Council also sent Miss C its decision on her further request for a review of her housing priority. The Council did not change its decision and Miss C remained in the High housing need band.
- In mid-July Miss C complained to the Ombudsman. Not all of Miss C’s complaints had completed the Council’s complaints procedure. But, we used our discretion to accept the complaint early because Miss C was facing imminent eviction from Property A in September.
- The Council says in mid-August Organisation A confirmed to the Council it had received the referral from the Council (made in May). This was because Organisation A had previously told Miss C it had not received such a referral from the Council.
- In August the Council responded to Miss C’s appeal against the Council’s decision to restrict her contact with the Council. The Council upheld its decision.
- In late August Miss C again tried to put in a new homelessness application to the Council.
- On 20 August the Council reviewed Miss C’s housing register priority again and did not change her priority.
- The Council’s response to my enquiries (in August and September) included the following comments:
- The Council has used its discretion to allow Miss C to remain at Property A while her appeal to the county court against the homelessness decision of December 2017 is being considered.
- In May 2018 shortly after Miss C reported anti social behaviour incidents the Council discussed alternative temporary accommodation but this was declined by Miss C who only wanted long term accommodation.
- Miss C has recently made a request for alternative temporary accommodation. The Council has offered bed and breakfast accommodation because this is the only accommodation the Council has available at present. Miss C has declined this offer and has indicated she would rather stay at Property A.
- The criteria and procedures relating to repeat homelessness applications for persons who are still being temporarily accommodated by a local authority following an intentional homeless decision are not clear within the legislation. The Council has been unable to identify examples in caselaw where a fresh homelessness application has been triggered in circumstances similar to Miss C’s situation.
- A fresh homelessness application was not taken in May 2018. The Council advised Miss C to seek independent advice and she had the option to put in a judicial review application.
- However, the Council arranged an appointment with Miss C for 13 September to complete a fresh homelessness application. The application will be investigated alongside the court’s consideration of Miss C’s appeal against the December 2017 decision.
- I will now address each of Miss C’s complaints.
The Council has failed to investigate and take action in line with the Council’s policy on anti-social behaviour about the abuse and harassment Miss C reported
- The information does not suggest the Council was at fault for the way it responded to the incidents of abuse and harassment reported by Miss C. I am satisfied the Council’s response to the incidents reported by Miss C was broadly in line with its policy on anti social behaviour, which aims to support the victim and take action against the perpetrator.
- The Council promptly arranged a meeting with Miss C to discuss the incidents she reported. The Council made a referral to the Joint Action Group. Also, the Council twice offered to provide additional security measures for Miss C at Property A. The Council says once this was agreed by Miss C it provided additional window locks. In response to my draft decision, Miss C said no locks were provided. But, I would have expected Miss C to have raised this with the Council at the time if the Council did not provide the locks as agreed. Also, because the information suggests Miss C will soon be moving out of the property, further investigation is not warranted.
- There is a disagreement between Miss C and the Council about whether the Council also made a referral to Organisation A. But, Organisation A has confirmed that referrals were made by other bodies involved. So, even if the Council was at fault for not making this referral, Miss C did not suffer an injustice as a result.
- Miss C does not accept the Council offered her alternative accommodation in May 2018 as claimed by the Council. Regardless of whether the Council made a specific offer of alternative accommodation or not, the Council’s records suggest it put forward alternative accommodation options, such as a refuge. Also, it seems that any offer of temporary accommodation would not have been accepted by Miss C. The information strongly suggests the Council has offered appropriate support to Miss C.
- Miss C says the Council should have sent letters to all residents about the complaints she has made, in line with the Council’s policy on anti-social behaviour. The Council told Miss C that it did not consider this would be an appropriate course of action. I have not seen any information to suggest the Council’s handling of the matter was affected by fault.
- Miss C says the Council should have completed a form within 48 hours of the incident in March. Miss C says the Council did not complete this form until April. But, I have not seen any information to suggest Miss C told the Council about this incident before April. So, I find the Council was not at fault on this basis.
- It is clear from the Council’s records that the Council had concerns about inconsistent information provided by Miss C about the incidents she reported.
- Also, Miss C was unable to provide information about who may have put graffiti in her building and on her window. I note the Joint Action Group, which includes the Police, decided to close the case because the Group did not consider Miss C was at risk. In addition, the Council’s records indicate the Council had difficulty corroborating Miss C’s accounts of incidents she reported. This includes the incidents in the supermarket and the Council offices.
- My view is the Council took reasonable steps to investigate the incidents reported by Miss C and provided support for her. So, the evidence does not suggest the Council’s handling of the matter was affected by fault.
The Council refused to accept a new homelessness application from Miss C in May 2018 and has not provided reasons for its decision in writing
- The Council wrote to Miss C on 22 May 2018 in response to her request for housing help. In the letter the Council confirmed in writing that it did not believe the duty to accept a new homelessness application had been triggered. The Council says it had told Miss C verbally before then that it did not consider there had been a material change in her circumstances. In response to my enquiries the Council has explained that there were no new significant and relevant facts relating to the loss of Miss C’s last settled address which could potentially result in a different outcome on whether she was intentionally homeless.
- It was for the Council to decide whether there were new facts which made Miss C’s request for housing help different to her previous homelessness application which the Council had already decided. My view is the Council’s decision not to accept a new homelessness application from Miss C in May 2018 was not affected by fault. The Council did not consider the incidents at Property A were relevant to the Council’s decision that Miss C had made herself intentionally homeless from her last settled address. The Council applied the relevant test set out in government guidance and it is not for the Ombudsman to say this decision was wrong.
- The Council has recently decided to accept a new homelessness application from Miss C. But, this does not mean the Council’s earlier decision was affected by fault.
The Council has not given proper consideration to her request for a higher priority to be awarded to her housing register application to take into account the abuse and harassment she has suffered
- The Council’s housing allocations policy allows applicants to be placed in the Priority band where the person is ‘subject to severe harassment, threats of violence or actual violence or threats of physical, emotional or sexual abuse’. Miss C says the Council has not given proper consideration to her request to be placed in the Priority band on this basis.
- My view is the Council’s consideration of Miss C’s requests for a higher housing register priority were not affected by fault. Since May 2018 the Council has re-assessed Miss C’s housing register priority on several occasions in response to her requests. I am satisfied the Council has explained to Miss C in detail, particularly in its letter of 15 June 2018, why it has decided not to place her application in the Priority band. The Council’s reasons are largely the same as why it decided to take no further action in response to the incidents of harassment and abuse Miss C reported. The Council took into account the letters Miss C provided from various agencies to support her request. But, the Council said none of these agencies had witnessed any of the alleged incidents.
- Miss C disagrees with the Council’s decision. But, because the information does not suggest the Council’s decision was affected by fault, I cannot say the Council’s decision was wrong.
The Council has unreasonably placed restrictions on Miss C’s contact with the Council, which has made it difficult for her to claim the benefits she is entitled to
- The Council has a policy which allows it to put in place restrictions on a person’s contact with the Council. The Council has restricted Miss C’s contact with the Council for two reasons: her conduct in the Council offices and the volume and frequency of contacts by email and telephone. The Council’s policy allows it to restrict a person’s contact for these reasons.
- I have been provided with conflicting accounts of Miss C’s conduct at the Council’s offices on 3 May which led to the Council banning her from the Council offices without prior appointment. From the information available I cannot say it is more likely than not the Council’s decision to ban Miss C from the Council offices was affected by fault. Also, I note this restriction did not prevent Miss C attending the Council offices to attend appointments.
- Given the volume and frequency of Miss C’s email and telephone contact with the Council, my view is the Council’s decision to impose contact restrictions was in line with its policy. Miss C says the Council did not take her condition into account when making this decision. But, the Council was entitled to consider the volume of contacts it was receiving from Miss C and the decision did not prevent Miss C contacting the Council by email or visiting the Council offices by appointment.
- I have not investigated the Council’s actions since it accepted a new homelessness application from Miss C in September 2018. This is because these events have taken place since Miss C complained to us and the Council’s consideration of Miss C’s homelessness application is ongoing. Miss C may make a new complaint to us about what has happened since September 2018. But, she would need to complete the Council’s complaints procedure first. Also, we are unlikely to investigate a complaint about a decision that the Council does not owe Miss C the main housing duty. This is because Miss C may use her review and appeal rights to challenge such a decision.
- The Council was not at fault for the matters complained about. I have now completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman