The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The accommodation provider, acting on behalf of the Council, was at fault for destroying Ms X’s belongings but has made an appropriate payment to remedy this. The Council was not at fault for deciding Ms X was not in priority need, nor for evicting her in late February 2020, which was shortly before the national lockdown in response to COVID-19.
- Ms X complained the Council evicted her from temporary accommodation during the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant she was living on the streets during the national lockdown.
- She also complained she did not have access to her belongings, including medication, following her eviction, and was later told they had been destroyed. Although the Council paid her £3,800 for the lost items, she said this did not remedy the loss of personal items that were irreplaceable.
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)
- The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), as amended)
- We investigate complaints about councils and certain other bodies. Where an individual, organisation or private company is providing services on behalf of a council, we can investigate complaints about the actions of these providers. (Local Government Act 1974, section 25(7), 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:
- the information Ms X provided and spoke to her about her complaint;
- the information the Council provided in response to my enquiries;
- relevant law and guidance, as set out below.
What I found
Relevant law and guidance
- 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 the council has reason to believe they may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, a number of duties arise, including:
- to make enquiries about whether it owes the person a housing duty;
- to secure suitable accommodation for those in priority need pending the outcome of those enquiries;
- to notify the applicant of the decision in writing and the right to request a review of the decision.
- are a pregnant woman;
- have children living with them; or
- are vulnerable due to serious health problems, disability or old age.
A person who is fleeing domestic abuse is not automatically in priority need. They will need to show they are more vulnerable than others who become homeless due to their physical or mental health or for some other reason.
- Where a council is satisfied a person is homeless and eligible for support, it has a duty to take reasonable steps to help the person secure accommodation that will be available for at least six months. This is the relief duty.
- The council should work with the person to identify practical and reasonable steps they and the council can take to help them secure suitable accommodation. These steps should be tailored to the household, and must be provided to the applicant in writing as their personalised housing plan (PHP). (Housing Act 1996, section 189A and Homelessness Code of Guidance chapter 11)
- In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Coronavirus Act 2020 introduced a temporary provision to protect most residential tenants from eviction by increasing the notice period for landlords to obtain possession of their properties to at least three months. This protection only applied to tenants with specific types of tenancy.
COVID-19 and rough sleepers
- In March 2020, the Government announced emergency funding for councils in England to help rough sleepers self-isolate during the COVID-19 outbreak. This became known as the Everyone In initiative.
- The Government wrote to all councils on 26 March to explain its approach, which aimed to “reduce the impact of COVID-19 on people facing homelessness and ultimately preventing deaths during this public health emergency”. It said the focus was on “people who are, or are at risk of, sleeping rough, and those who are in accommodation where it is difficult to self-isolate, such as shelters and assessment centres”. Councils were asked to urgently procure accommodation for people on the streets. Many councils booked empty hotel and hostel accommodation to accommodate rough sleepers.
Protection of property
- Where the council owes, or has owed, a housing duty to the person (such as the relief duty), it also has a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent the loss of the person’s property or limit any damage to that property, where it has reason to believe:
- there is danger the person’s personal property will be lost or damaged;
- the danger arises because the person is unable to protect it or deal with it; and
- no other suitable arrangements have been made.
Where the council arranges for the removal and storage of the person’s property, it can charge them for its reasonable costs for doing so.
(Housing Act 1996, sections 211 and 212).
- Ms X contacted the Council for assistance after fleeing domestic abuse. The Council accepted a homelessness application, referred her to a charity that provided support for survivors of domestic abuse, and arranged emergency accommodation for her. It asked her to complete relevant forms and provide certain documents to support her application. Ms X provided most of these in late October 2019, at which point the Council accepted a relief duty and sent her a personalised housing plan (PHP).
- After making enquiries, the Council decided she was not in priority need. It sent her a decision letter in mid November, which explained its reasons for deciding this and set out her right to ask for a review. The letter confirmed the information considered and the legal test applied when deciding Ms X was not in priority need. The letter said Ms X would need to leave the emergency accommodation in early January 2020.
- Ms X asked for a review of the decision and provided additional medical evidence in support. She also asked the Council to extend the emergency accommodation until it made a review decision. The Council did not agree to her request to extend the emergency accommodation pending the appeal. However, it did exercise its discretion to extend the emergency accommodation initially to mid January and later to 28 February 2020, to allow Ms X more time to engage with its officers to identify suitable private sector accommodation.
- Shortly before the end of February Ms X asked the Council to extend the emergency accommodation for a further period. The charity that was providing emotional support also asked for an extension on her behalf. Ms X spoke to the review officer by telephone on 26 February, and he confirmed the emergency accommodation would not be extended further.
- Ms X also asked her MP to intervene. The Council wrote to her MP on 27 February. It set out the steps it has taken to assist Ms X and confirmed it would not be agreeing a further extension to the emergency accommodation. The MP forwarded the Council’s email to Ms X and provided advice on action she could take to find alternative accommodation.
- The review decision was made on 28 February 2020. It upheld the original decision that Ms X was not in priority need. The decision letter set out:
- the information considered, which included medical information from Ms X’s G.P and medical reports commissioned by the Council, as well as the information Ms X provided directly to the Council;
- the situations in which someone may be in priority need, and the legal test applied when deciding whether she was vulnerable in that context;
- its detailed reasons for deciding that Ms X was not in priority need, taking into account specifically her mental and physical health, her vulnerability as a domestic abuse survivor, and her protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010;
- that in view of its decision, it did not have a duty to secure accommodation for Ms X; and
- her right to appeal.
Eviction from emergency accommodation
- The Council said Ms X should have left the accommodation on 28 February 2020 but did not do so. It said the accommodation provider, acting on its behalf, told her she needed to leave but she did not do so. I have seen emails that show Ms X was unhappy that accommodation provider staff were “hassling her” to leave. The accommodation provider told her the emergency accommodation had not been extended so she needed to leave. Ms X did not leave so on 16 March 2020 it changed the locks and removed her belongings for storage.
- Ms X again approached her MP, who contacted the Council on 17 March. On the same day, in response to the MP contact, the Council took a number of actions, including:
- responding to the MP to set out the action it proposed to take;
- attempting to contact Ms X by telephone;
- contacting the charity who was supporting Ms X, which told it Ms X had confirmed she was staying with friends and this accommodation was safe for her;
- sending an email to Ms X to say it understood she had somewhere safe to stay that night and offering assistance in finding private rented accommodation.
Loss of belongings
- When the provider evicted Ms X from the emergency accommodation on 16 March, it removed her personal belongings from the property and stored them at its office. Ms X told me this included medication and personal items. On 30 March Ms X asked it to call her about collecting them. The provider responded the same day to explain its office was closed during the national lockdown due to COVID-19. It said it would contact her when restrictions eased to arrange for collection.
- In its stage 1 complaint response in April 2020, the Council said Ms X could have collected her belongings between 16 March when she was evicted and 23 March when the national lockdown began. In its stage 2 complaint response in May 2020, the Council confirmed the accommodation provider’s officers were still closed and said that collecting belongings was not listed in Government guidance as a reason to be away from home during the national lockdown.
- Ms X told me the Council later said her belongings had been lost and it paid her £3,800 to compensate her for this. Ms X says this was not sufficient to remedy the loss of personal items that cannot be replaced, such as gifts from her father, who had recently died, and his watch.
- Council records show the accommodation provider:
- destroyed Ms X’s belongings on 30 March because she had not collected them and its office was being refurbished;
- told the Council in June 2020 that its officers, who were working from home, were not aware her belongings had been destroyed when they said Ms X could collect them after COVID-19 restrictions eased;
- paid Ms X £3,800 compensation for the loss of her belongings. She had initially asked for £4,000 but in an email dated 18 August 2020, accepted its offer of £3,800, which was paid the following day.
- When Ms X approached the Council in September 2019, it accepted a homelessness application and it offered her emergency accommodation from early October 2019, after Ms X had attended to a family matter outside the Council’s area. Later in October, it accepted a relief duty and issued a PHP. It made appropriate enquiries, following which it decided Ms X was not in priority need. It wrote to Ms X to explain its reasons and her right to ask for a review. It was not at fault.
- Ms X’s solicitors asked for a review on her behalf in mid December 2019. There was a short delay in issuing the review decision but the delay was not sufficient to warrant a formal finding of fault. In any case, this did not cause Ms X an injustice because the Council kept her updated about the reasons for the delay and extended her emergency accommodation.
- The Council issued its review decision on 28 February 2020. It told her if she was unhappy with the decision, she could appeal to the county court. She should have appealed by 20 March 2020 and, if she had done so by then, this would have been before the national lockdown due to COVID-19 was announced.
- Where the person has a right of appeal, we would not investigate the matter unless we decided it was not reasonable to expect them to exercise that right.
- Ms X argued it was not reasonable to expect her to appeal given the COVID-19 pandemic meant she could not access legal advice to assist her in doing so.
- Although I consider there was sufficient time for Ms X to seek legal advice before the national lockdown, particularly given she had already instructed a solicitor to assist with her request for a review, I have exercised discretion to investigate.
- It is not my role to say whether the Council made the correct decision. Rather, I have considered whether there was fault in the decision making process.
- The review decision letter set out in detail the information it had considered, the legal test it had applied and its reasons for deciding she was not in priority need. This included considering the medical evidence Ms X provided. The law and guidance at the time did not say that those fleeing accommodation following domestic abuse were automatically in priority need. The Council considered whether Ms X was vulnerable as a result of physical and mental health issues she disclosed and as a result of the domestic abuse she had suffered. It also considered its duties to Ms X under the Equality Act 2010. I have identified no fault in the decision making process and therefore cannot comment on the decision reached.
Eviction from emergency accommodation
- Ms X asked for an extension to the emergency accommodation whilst the Council carried out its review. The Council was not required to extend the accommodation until the review decision. It considered her request and decided not to agree it. However, it agreed to a shorter extension to a allow time for her to work with its officers to identify suitable private rented accommodation. It later agreed a further extension, which ended on the same day the review decision was issued.
- The Council told Ms X shortly before the end of February that it would not extend the emergency accommodation further. It said its accommodation provider told Ms X on a number of occasions she needed to leave but she did not do so and it evicted her in 16 March 2020. Although I have not seen a record of these warnings, I have seen email communications with Ms X referring to this so I am satisfied it did explain she needed to leave.
- Ms X complained the Council had not followed the proper process for evicting her and did not give her sufficient notice. Since this was emergency accommodation, Ms X was a licensee and not a tenant, which meant the Council did not need to seek a court order before evicting her and did not therefore need to issue the formal notices associated with the court process. It initially told her in November 2019 that she would need to leave in early January. It subsequently extended this first to late January and then to 28 February. It explained to her by telephone and in writing that it would not extend the emergency accommodation and it would end on 28 February. Throughout this period, it offered assistance in identifying suitable alternative private rented accommodation but Ms X chose not to pursue that at the time.
- Ms X further complained the Council had evicted her during the COVID-19 pandemic contrary to Government guidance. However, Ms X was asked to leave in late February, which was before the pandemic and the locks were changed on 16 March, which was prior to the start of the national lockdown on 23 March 2020.
- Council records show when the MP contacted it the day after the eviction in mid March it considered offering further emergency accommodation but decided this was not needed because the charity assisting her said she was staying with friends. It did contact Ms X by email to say this was its understanding but did not receive a response from her. The Council had no other indication she may be street homeless apart from an email on 30 March. However, it said its systems for identifying people sleeping rough did not indicate she was in fact doing so. The Council and her MP provided information about who to contact if she was street homeless but she did not follow that up. On balance, therefore, I do not find the Council was at fault for not providing accommodation under the Everyone In Initiative from late March until she accepted private rented accommodation in mid April 2020.
Loss of belongings
- The accommodation provider changed the locks and removed her belongings to storage in mid March. Ms X had not collected them before the national lockdown began in late March. The accommodation provider should have stored them for 28 days after her eviction but destroyed them on 30 March. This was fault. The Council is responsible for that fault because the accommodation provider was acting on its behalf. The fault meant Ms X lost items of personal value that could not be replaced.
- There was some confusion caused by the accommodation provider initially telling the Council Ms X could collect her belongings when COVID-19 restrictions eased when in fact they had already been destroyed. However, I do not consider this amounts to further fault in the circumstances where staff moved to working from home at short notice and did not have access to all the information they needed.
- When it became clear what had happened, the Council worked with the accommodation provider to compensate Ms X for her loss. I have seen emails to show she claimed £4,000 and agreed to accept £3,800. I also note she was not able to provide any receipts to show what the items were worth. Given that the payment was only £200 short of the amount she claimed, and there is no evidence to show her belongings were worth significantly more than that, I consider this was a reasonable remedy for the injustice caused. Therefore, no further recommendations are needed.
- I have completed my investigation. I found fault causing injustice but this has already been remedied and no further recommendations are needed.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman