The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council removed Mr B from its housing register in accordance with its housing allocations scheme. The officer who decided the case also completed the review, which is wrong. However, because of Mr B’s complaint the Council has later reviewed the decision and still upholds it. I see no benefit in seeking further review. The Council will apologise for its error, and for directing Mr B to the wrong Ombudsman. The errors caused him doubt, time and trouble.
- The complainant, who I will call Mr B, has an advocate from Shelter acting for him. Mr B says the Council made an unreasonable decision to remove him from its housing register, based on incorrect information. The Council has not taken proper account of further information provided which supports Mr B’s eligibility to be on the register. The Council did not follow its procedure, as the same officer reviewed their own decision. The Council failed to respond to the complaint at Stage 1. Mr B remains homeless and in need of housing.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We may investigate complaints made on behalf of someone else if they have given their consent. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26A(1), as amended)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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:
- Information provided by Mr B and his advocate.
- The Council’s response to my enquiries.
- The Council’s ‘Housing Allocations Scheme’.
- Responses to a draft of this statement.
What I found
- The Council runs a housing register for those wanting council or housing association property. The Council’s ‘Housing Allocations Scheme’ sets out how it manages the register.
What should happen
- The sections of the Housing Allocations Scheme relevant to this complaint are as follows:
- Section 3.3.3 about local connection. This says “….any applicant will be required to meet the local connection criteria in order to qualify to join the Housing Register for an allocation. A local connection can be established if:
- You have lived in Southwark for the last five years
- You work in the area…
- You want to live near to a close relative who has lived in Southwark for more than five years and receive or provide support/care or
- There is another very specific reason why you need to live in Southwark (for example severe social or medical needs).”
o) An applicant giving false information on their housing application. This includes information that may be missing from the application. This will be material information that would potentially lead to the applicant being offered a property that they otherwise would not be entitled to.”
- Section 3.11.2 says “Although an applicant may have been cleared for an offer, the London Borough of Southwark reserves the right to further investigate an application if any information comes to light that questions an applicant’s entitlement to an offer. This can be at any stage prior to the applicant signing the tenancy.”
- Section 7.8.1 says “A written offer can only be withdrawn from an applicant, prior to tenancy being signed, where:
- The applicant has made a false declaration, or failed to provide up to date information, and this substantially alters their eligibility for the property offered:
c) as a result of incorrect information on the applicant’s computer records, which means that the applicant’s qualification to join the Housing Register and or priority status on the Housing Register is substantially altered.”
- Mr B and his wife are separated but were still living in the same home. Mr B had been sleeping on the sofa for several years. The situation became untenable and Mr B’s wife asked him to leave.
- Mr B applied to join the housing register. The application form asks if you can stay within your accommodation for longer than two months; Mr B said yes. The Council accepted Mr B onto the housing register. Due to demand outweighing supply, it can take some time before the Council can arrange housing.
- Four months later Mr B accepted temporary accommodation from a charity; he did not tell the Council. Mr B’s housing application form includes a declaration that he must tell the Council at once of any change of circumstances. Mr B should have told the Council if he could no longer stay in the property, and should have told the Council about the alternative accommodation he had found.
- Five months later the Council wrote to Mr B to say he had come second place for a property. The Council completed internal checks and linked Mr B to another property that was different to that given on his application form. The Council referred his case to its Fraud and Verification team for further checking. It is through this process the Council found that Mr B was living elsewhere and had not updated it of the change. Mr B says he did not realise he needed to tell the Council because where he was staying was only temporary, and that he still stayed at the property given on his application for half of the week to keep the relationship with his children. The Council’s housing policy says the onus is on applicants to tell the Council when there is a relevant change in circumstances.
- The Council wrote to Mr B to say it had decided to remove him from the housing register. The property he had accepted is in another council borough, so he had not been living in the borough for the last five years, which is a requirement of its housing allocations policy. Mr B had failed to tell the Council of a change in his circumstances; the Council decided he had provided false or misleading information about his circumstances. The Council relied on section 3.5.13 (o) of its policy, detailed in paragraph 14. The letter told Mr B of his right of review against the decision.
- Mr B appealed the decision on the basis he did not give any false information on his housing application. Mr B confirmed the link to an address out of borough as he stayed there occasionally, but that this was a temporary, month by month basis. Mr B still considered his main home to be as stated on his housing application.
- The Council responded and upheld its decision to remove Mr B from the housing register. This is on the basis he has broken his local connection to the borough by entering a legal agreement (a licence) to live in another council borough. This is irrespective of the reasons for that move, or that it was only ever intended to be temporary. The Council relies on section 3.5.13 (o) of its allocations policy, as says Mr B failed to provide true and accurate information before its investigation into his application.
- The Council’s housing allocations scheme says the Housing Choice Team Leader will undertake a review of any decision requested. The officer will not have been involved in an original decision. The Housing Choice Team Leader completed the review, but that same officer had also issued the original decision.
- Mr B challenged this decision and the Housing Applications and Choice manager responded. This letter said under the Housing Allocations Scheme Mr B had not kept a local connection to remain on the housing register.
- Mr B’s advocate made a complaint on his behalf, saying the Council had failed to properly apply the residency test and wilfully ignored information provided. The Council responded, but the representative says they never received that response. The Council has shown it sent it by e-mail, however it does not show the e-mail address so it’s possible it was wrong. The Council relies on sections 3.3.3, 7.8.1 and 3.11.2 of its Housing Allocations Scheme.
- The Council considered the complaint at the second, and final stage, of its complaints procedure. It confirmed that Mr B had a licence for an address out of borough and therefore he did not qualify for registration. The Council wrongly referred Mr B to the Housing Ombudsman.
- Mr B says his mother lives in Southwark and needs care, therefore he may still qualify for a local connection. There is no evidence Mr B advised the Council of this on his housing applications, though he did later tell the Council in an e-mail. The Council says Mr B can apply and provide evidence, so it can consider a fresh application on this basis. The Council could have told Mr B this sooner.
Was there fault causing injustice?
- The Council relied on section 3.5.13 (o) of its Housing Allocations Scheme when it first decided to remove Mr B from the register. This is about false information on your housing application; when completing his housing application Mr B gave correct information. The issue is that Mr B did not update the Council of his change of circumstances when he took accommodation out of borough. I am not sure this section of the Housing Allocations Scheme is directly relevant in this case.
- However, while the Council did not quote the sections of guidance, it did always refer to the points that Mr B had moved out of borough so broke his local connection, and had failed to update the Council of his change of circumstances. These are valid reasons for removing Mr B from the housing register under the Housing Allocations Scheme.
- I note Mr B’s comments that his move out of borough was temporary, and that he did not spend all his time in that accommodation. Regardless of this, the fact remains that he accepted a tenancy out of borough and has not been living within Southwark for the last five years. While Mr B argues there is nothing to say you must permanently live in the borough for the five years, equally there is nothing to support you can be a temporary resident. I can see no reason to question the Council’s interpretation of its policy, even though Mr B disagrees.
- I find no fault the Council did not consider whether Mr B has a local connection to care for his mother, as I have seen no evidence Mr B told the Council this at the relevant time. However, when Mr B did later refer to it in an e-mail, the Council missed the opportunity to give advice on applying to the housing register on that basis.
- The Council was at fault in the same officer completing the review who made the original decision. This leaves Mr B in doubt over whether the Council made a fair decision. However, because of Mr B’s concerns a senior manager looked at his case, it has also exhausted the Council’s own complaints procedure. Therefore, the Council has reviewed this decision various times, so I do not see it would serve any purpose to ask the Council to review its decision again.
- The Council was at fault for directing Mr B to the Housing Ombudsman, this caused him some wasted time and effort, and delayed an independent consideration of his complaint.
- To acknowledge the impact on Mr B, and prevent future failings, the Council will:
- Apologise to Mr B for the same officer completing the review, and directing Mr B to the wrong Ombudsman.
- Remind relevant staff of section 3.15.1 of the housing allocations scheme, if a Housing Choice Team Leader was involved in the original decision then another Team Leader or more senior member of staff should review the case.
- Remind relevant staff when to refer to the Housing Ombudsman and when to refer to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.
- I have completed my investigation. There was fault by the Council causing Mr B injustice, some of which has been remedied already and some of which the Council should apologise for.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman