The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs B complains about the Council’s handling of her homeless and housing applications during 2017 and 2018. The Ombudsman has found some instances of fault by the Council. He has completed the investigation and upheld the complaint because the Council agrees to take action.
- The complainant (whom I refer to as Mrs B) complains:
- A male Council Officer spoke to her in a derogatory manner in a public space accusing her of a fraudulent claim when she presented as homeless;
- The Council unreasonably delayed deciding her homeless application;
- The Council initially refused to accept her daughter on the homeless application;
- The Council refused an initial request for emergency accommodation in 2017;
- The Council delayed processing her housing register application and failed to include her homeless priority;
- The Council refused to award medical priority and did not tell her how the matter was considered;
- Delayed responding to her formal complaints.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Ombudsman investigates complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. He 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, he may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1))
- The Ombudsman cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. He must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3))
- 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 spoken to Mrs B and considered the information she provided. I asked the Council questions and carefully examined its response.
- I have shared my draft decision with both parties and considered the emails Mrs B sent in reply.
What I found
- In June 2017 Mrs B started to complete an online housing register application but she did not submit it for assessment to the Council because she wanted to make amendments. On 8 August Mrs B attended the Housing Options Centre and told the Council she was homeless as she had to leave her current accommodation. She completed a homeless application and did not include details of her daughter as being part of the application. On 13 August Mrs B sent the Council a housing register application online. On 19 September Mrs B visited the Housing Options Centre again. She met a male Officer and said she had been asked to leave her accommodation. Mrs B wanted to add her daughter on the homeless application and the Council says she was told to provide evidence. Mrs B requested temporary accommodation and the Officer filled out a temporary accommodation request form. He decided Mrs B was not eligible for temporary accommodation because she had already arranged an alternative place to stay in the sort term. Mrs B told me that when she spoke to the Officer in a public space he was rude to her. Mrs B recalls him being aggressive and accusing her of fraud. I have no contemporaneous evidence to verify what took place.
- Mrs B has provided me with an email dated 21 September which details her complaints to the Council. However, the email is addressed to her own email account. I have no evidence of this being received by the Council at that time. On 28 September Mrs B sent the Council additional papers but only relating to her and not her daughter. On 13 October Mrs B complained to the Council about the Officer’s conduct on 19 September and the overall handling of her case. The Council responded on 16 October. It said it usually took 33 working days to assess homeless applications but due to “unprecedented service demands” it was taking “considerably longer to complete” assessments. It repeated the request for Mrs B to send in evidence supporting her daughter’s need to join the homeless application. It also set out that she had submitted a homeless and a housing register applications which were two separate processes. The Council also told Mrs B that because she had a dog a number of temporary accommodation providers would not accept applicants who had a pet and the Council had sought to discuss options with her. In respect of the Officer’s conduct in September the Council had spoken to him and he was sorry Mrs B had complained. The Council said it regretted if Mrs B felt intimidated and was committed to good customer service.
- On 31 October, the Council assessed Mrs B’s housing register application. Mrs B had not submitted key evidence and the Council emailed her detailing what was outstanding (including evidence to support housing need and medical evidence). On 12 November Mrs B resubmitted her housing register application. Four days later the Council received an email from Mrs B containing medical information from her doctor in support of medical priority. On 22 November, a Homelessness Officer spoke to Mrs B and confirmed her daughter would be included in the homeless application. On 28 November, the Council decided it did have a full housing duty towards Mrs B and her daughter. It sent her a decision letter.
- On 8 January 2018, the Council assessed Mrs B’s housing register application. It emailed Mrs B asking for outstanding evidence and gave her 21 days to provide it. On 29 January, the Council looked again at the housing register application. Mrs B had not sent any additional evidence. The Council assessed the application on the information it had, which failed to include any details from Mrs B that she had been accepted as homeless. It found she had no housing need or medical need. It emailed her a decision letter.
- On 8 March Mrs B called the Council and was told her housing register application was closed in January. Mrs B said she had not received the decision email. She later submitted a fresh application that day which included details about her being accepted as homeless. The Council assessed the application as a priority. It awarded her band 2 priority as homeless and band 3 priority for being overcrowded. It was unable to assess medical priority because Mrs B needed to submit evidence. The Council emailed the decision to Mrs B and detailed the evidence it needed.
- On 12 March Mrs B amended the housing register application to include additional housing needs. The Council looked at the application two days later. It emailed Mrs B explaining she still needed to provide evidence. The next day Mrs B amended the housing register application again. At the end of March Mrs B spoke with the Council and was told what information was required to assess her medical need. On 9 May Mrs B submitted a request for medical need. The Council assessed the evidence on 28 June. It wrote to Mrs B stating her priority remained the same. The letter did not refer to how the medical evidence was considered or why no priority was awarded.
- In June Mrs B contacted the Ombudsman. We referred her complaint back to the Council to consider. The Council replied to the complaint on 13 August. It set how the case had been handled and apologised that Mrs B had not received an explanation about why medical priority was not awarded. It set out what she would need to do to progress this issue if she still wanted to seek medical priority.
What should have happened
- A homeless applicant can attend the Council’s Housing Options Centre to discuss their housing need and make a homeless application. An Officer should discuss their options and advise if any additional evidence is needed to progress the application.
- There is no statutory time limit on how long the Council should take to decide a homeless application. Good practice says a decision should be made within 33 working days. If an applicant wants to add another person on to the homeless application they will have to provide evidence showing that person is eligible for assistance.
- When the Council reaches a decision on a homeless application they will send the decision letter by email.
- A person can ask the Council for temporary accommodation whilst it considers the homeless application. The Council will fill out a temporary accommodation request form and note the reasons why the request had been accepted or refused. If an applicant has alternative accommodation to stay in short-term the Council is not automatically required to provide temporary accommodation.
Housing register application
- A person must complete a housing register application form online if they want to be considered for social housing under the Council’s Choice Based Letting system. The Council will assess the evidence provided by the applicant to determine if they have housing need, such as medical priority. The Council awards bands for need and essentially the higher the band the better chance an applicant has to successfully bid for a property.
- Medical need is not an assessment of the applicant’s conditions. Rather the Council must decide if there is evidence the applicant’s current housing is having a significant detrimental impact on their condition.
- Once the Council reaches a decision on a housing register application it will award banding, where eligible, and notify the applicant. It will then activate an on-line account to enable the applicant to bid on properties. In deciding which applicant is successful for a property bid the Council takes account of their banding status and the length of time they have been on the housing register.
Was there fault by the Council
- Mrs B says an Officer was rude to her in a public space in September 2017. I have no evidence to verify what was said at that time because there is no contemporaneous record that verifies Mrs B’s recollection of events. I note the Council apologised to Mrs B in October if she had felt intimidated but it did not say the Officer had actually acted in the way it was alleged. In the absence of any supporting evidence I am unable to say there was fault by the Officer. Mrs B also feels the Council should provide her with the Officer’s details. This is not the Council’s policy.
- Mrs B complains the Council unreasonably delayed deciding her homeless application. The Council has already acknowledged that it took longer than the usual 33 working days to reach a view. That was due to large increase in the people accessing its homeless service. It notified Mrs B about the delays in October. There is no statutory timeframe for the Council to decide a homeless application. Ideally it should be within the 33 working days it referenced to Mrs B but this is not a binding time frame. In this case some delay was caused by Mrs B failing to provide the information the Council requested about her daughter and the Council was seeking to deal with an unprecedented surge of applicants. I recognise the reasons for the time taken to progress Mrs B’s case and that Mrs B was informed why this was happening. As such I do not see there is significant fault by the Council.
- Mrs B says the Council initially refused to accept her daughter onto the homeless application. I can see no evidence that was the case. The Council correctly advised Mrs B that she would need to provide evidence showing why her daughter should be added on. That is in line with procedures and I find no evidence of fault by the Council.
- Mrs B says the Council unfairly refused a request for temporary accommodation. The evidence shows the Officer followed the correct process and considered Mrs B’s request. He was entitled to refuse it because Mrs B had alternative accommodation at that time. Mrs B disagrees with the Council’s decision but that is not evidence of fault. The Ombudsman will not question the validity of decision making where there is no evidence of fault.
- Mrs B complains the Council delayed processing her housing register application. She sent in a number of applications and the final version was submitted on 12 November 2017. The Council looked at this on 8 January 2018. Ideally it should have been considered by 22 December 2017, within its six-week timeframe. That results in a delay of two weeks. However, I note that Mrs B had still not provided the evidence needed by the Council at that point. It reasonably allowed her a further 21 days to provide that outstanding evidence and reached a final decision after the deadline expired. When Mrs B submitted a further application in March it was prioritised and assessed within 24 hours. The evidence shows me some delay by the Council but I do not see this resulted in a significant injustice to Mrs B as set out below. Mrs B also told me the Council did not include her homeless priority on her online housing bidding system. I cannot see any evidence of this in the records.
- Mrs B further complains the Council failed to award her medical priority. I have found no evidence of fault. The Council followed the correct procedures assessing her case. However, I do find fault in the Council’s decision letter of 28 August. That failed to explain how the medical evidence had been considered and why no priority was awarded. That is not acceptable.
- Mrs B says the Council delayed responding to complaints. There was delay in the Council sending Mrs B a reply after her case was referred by the Ombudsman. I would have expected the Council to have ensured Ms B received a prompt reply and instead there was a delay of around four weeks.
Did the fault cause an injustice
- The delay in deciding on Mrs B’s housing register application did not cause an injustice to Mrs B given the Council decided she had no housing need at that stage based on the evidence she had provided.
- The Council’s failure to explain its reasons for not awarding medical need or explaining how this was assessed meant Mrs B was left unsure about what happened. I see the Council’s complaint response in August apologised and redressed this error by explaining how the assessment was done.
- The Council’s delay responding to Mrs B’s complaint, which it received in June 2018, meant Mrs B had to wait longer than expected for response.
- The Council has agreed to:
- confirm to the Ombudsman that medical decision letters will set out what evidence was considered and why the decision has been made. That should be done within four weeks of this case closing;
- send an apology to Mrs B for the faults identified by the Ombudsman within four weeks of this case closing;
- ensure final stage complaints (stage three) are responded to within the expected time frame and set out how this is being checked. Again, to confirm this to the Ombudsman within four weeks of the case closing.
- I have upheld the complaint and completed the investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman