The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Ombudsman found fault on Miss T’s complaint against the Council about the way it dealt with her homeless application. It delayed processing it for about 5 weeks. It also failed to properly consider her for interim accommodation before deciding her application. The Council agreed to send Miss T an apology, pay her £300 for the distress caused, and remind officers about the need to make and retain proper records.
- Mrs S complains on behalf of her daughter, Miss T, that the Council failed to:
- process her homeless application made in January 2018 properly without delays;
- offer her suitable interim accommodation;
- notify her of its decision on her homeless application for 3 months; and
- deal with her with respect.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
Homelessness: law and guidance
- I considered the law and guidance applicable at the time Miss T made her homeless application.
- If a housing authority has reason to believe a person applying for accommodation or assistance to get accommodation may be homeless, or threatened with it, the authority must make such inquiries as are necessary to satisfy itself whether the applicant is eligible for assistance and, if so, whether any duty, and if so what duty, is owed under Part 7 of the 1996 Act. (section 184, Housing Act 1996)
- A housing authority has the power to provide further assistance to applicants who are eligible for assistance, homeless (or threatened with it) unintentionally, and do not have a priority need. (section 192(3), Housing Act 1996)
- Inquiries should be dealt with as quickly as possible, whilst ensuring they are thorough and sufficient to allow it to satisfy itself about what duty, if any, is owed or what assistance might be offered. An early assessment is vital to determine whether it has an immediate duty to secure accommodation under s188. Where possible, they should aim to complete their inquiries and notify the applicant of the decision within 33 working days of accepting a duty to make inquiries. (paragraph 6.16, Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities, July 2006)
- If a housing authority has reason to believe an applicant may be eligible for assistance, homeless, and have a priority need, the authority will have an immediate duty to ensure suitable accommodation is available for the applicant pending completion of its inquiries and its decision as to what duty, if any, is owed under Part 7 of the Act. (section 188, Housing Act 1996)
- The threshold for this duty is low as the local authority only has to have reason to believe the applicant may be homeless, eligible for assistance, and have a priority need. (paragraph 7.3, Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities, July 2006)
- The interim duty ends once the housing authority has notified the applicant of the decision as to what duty, if any, is owed to him or her under Part 7. (paragraph 7.9, Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities, July 2006)
- When a housing authority completes its inquiries, it must notify the applicant in writing of its decision on the case. (section 202, Housing Act 1996)
How I considered this complaint
- I considered all the information provided by Mrs S, the notes I made of the telephone conversation I had with her, and the Council’s response to my enquiries, a copy of which I sent her. I sent a copy of my draft decision to Mrs S and the Council. I considered their responses.
What I found
- Mrs S says she is the primary carer of Miss T, her daughter. Miss T suffers from autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression.
- Miss T rented her first floor flat from the Council where she lived for 6 years. Problems began when a new neighbour moved in to the flat below. She claimed the neighbour harassed her by shouting, banging on his ceiling, and making threats against her and her mother. Miss T reported the neighbour’s antisocial behaviour to the Council.
- By January 2018, she could take no more and left the property. Miss T went to the Council to make a homeless application. She claimed the Council offered her interim accommodation but failed to tell her she would need to share a bathroom. Due to her health conditions, Miss T refused it. She began to sleep on the sofas of friends and family.
- Miss T’s requests for emergency accommodation were refused.
Homeless application: delays
- The following are key dates:
- 4 January 2018: The Council received a homeless application from Miss T giving antisocial behaviour as the reason why she left her flat. It explained she could not stay at her mother’s house because of her brother’s learning disabilities. The notes on the application confirmed Miss T did not require temporary accommodation at that time, but added, ‘may require’. Miss T also ticked to say she did not need temporary accommodation. A housing officer wrote to her the same day asking for proof of identity and details of her finances;
- 5 January: An internal email between officers said the offer of temporary accommodation was still there but she did not want it;
- 8 January: The Council received information from her GP and the following day, an officer made enquiries of the antisocial behaviour team who responded immediately. The police also provided information about its involvement;
- 9 January: The housing officer had emailed colleagues for information. The response she received back said Miss T was offered temporary accommodation which she refused. The information the officer received said it was safe for Miss T to return to her flat;
- 15 January: Miss T emailed the Council asking, ‘where the emergency accommodation’ was for that day. She said she could continue to sofa surf but did not feel safe to return to her flat;
- 16 January: The officer replied saying the Council would not offer her it. This was because the officer was not satisfied she was homeless, threatened with homelessness, or in priority need. The officer told her she was waiting for noise recording information and medical responses before deciding her application;
- 17 January: The antisocial behaviour manager confirmed Miss T was not deliberately targeted by the neighbour and it was safe for her to return;
- 25 January: The officer emailed Mrs S recommending Miss T return to her flat;
- 26 January: Mrs S emailed the Council about emergency accommodation. She asked for accommodation for Miss T for that evening.
The housing officer replied saying she was ‘minded’ to decide Miss T was not homeless. The Council would offer no interim temporary accommodation as she did not qualify. This was because she would not have priority and nor was she homeless;
- 5 February: Miss T gave the Council notice on her tenancy;
- 7 February: Miss T sent the Council a complaint;
- 17 February: Miss T found privately rented accommodation but said she struggled with the rent because of the £200 monthly shortfall between her benefit and rent. The Council said had she told it about this, it could have issued a ‘not homeless’ decision;
- 19 February: The Council provided a copy of a letter from Miss T in which she asks for benefit for 2 overlapping tenancies and referred to her new property address;
- 21 February: Miss T visited the Council’s offices;
- 23 February: The Council sent its stage 1 response to her complaint;
- 2 April: Mrs S asked to progress Miss T’s complaint;
- 4 April: An officer recommended she was not homeless as it received information she was living in privately rent accommodation. A section184 decision letter was sent saying she was not homeless;
- 16 April: Miss T’s solicitors asked for a review of the decision;
- 3 May: The Council sent Miss T its stage 2 response to her complaint which did not uphold her complaint;
- 10 May: The Council sent her its stage 3 response to her complaint which did not uphold it;
- 21 May: The Council received representations in support of the review request, a copy of which I have not seen;
- 18 July: Miss T received the review decision. This considered her affordability argument but upheld the original decision; and
- 28 August: Her solicitor sent new information to the Council and asked it to consider a new homeless application. Officers interviewed her the following month.
- I have not investigated any complaint Miss T may have about the decision on her homeless application. This is because it is not within the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction as she had the right to challenge it at court on a point of law if she considered it flawed.
- In response to my enquiries, the Council explained its investigation of her homeless application took place between 4 January 2018 to 4 April 2018. It accepted delays between 23 February and 3 April. The Council could give no reason for the delay but noted the team had acute staff shortages at the time and there was restructuring and recruitment underway. While Miss T applied for overlapping benefits, she had failed to tell the Council’s housing team about her getting privately rented accommodation.
- Statutory guidance provides local authorities should aim to reach a decision, and notify an applicant of the decision, within 33 working days. The Council took 64 working days. The delay amounts to fault. The fault caused Miss T avoidable injustice.
- The injustice to Miss T included: losing the opportunity to have a decision made earlier on her application; losing the opportunity to have a review of the decision earlier; and, having the uncertainty about the outcome of her application for longer than necessary.
Homelessness: Interim accommodation
- The Council also accepted while it had evidence of offering Miss T temporary accommodation on 4 January and 5 January, this was a ‘general discussion about the type and location of accommodation available at the time as opposed to a specific formal offer’. This meant Miss T never refused a formal offer. The Council failed to provide evidence of this discussion or details of any properties offered. This is fault.
- The Council acknowledged the officer was wrong to refuse to provide interim accommodation to Miss T when she asked for it on 15 and 26 January. The officer should have: provided temporary accommodation, or; told her of the decision on her application in writing if deciding no interim duty existed, or; kept proper records of the offers made at the start of the month if deciding these were formal refusals of an offer.
- The Council explained the officer was a temporary staff member who left in March 2018.
- I am satisfied these failures amount to fault. The Council accepted the interim duty to accommodate continued until it told Miss T in writing about the section 184 decision on her application.
- The injustice to Miss T included the lost opportunity to have an offer of temporary accommodation.
- The Council denied failing to treat her with respect. The records show it investigated some specific allegations against staff, for example.
- The Council provided copies of interview notes with officers involved. Her allegations about officers patronising her, not letting her read completed forms, and threatening her, for example, were put to the officers. The officers denied the accusations and gave an account of what happened during their contact with Miss T and her mother.
- I am satisfied the Council took reasonable steps to investigate reports made about the officers’ behaviour.
- I am not satisfied there is independent, corroborating evidence to justify upholding this complaint. Nor am I satisfied that any further investigation would justify the expenditure of public funds.
- I took account of our guidance on remedies and Miss T’s decision to get private rented accommodation. I have also taken account of Miss T’s failure to advise the Council’s housing team directly about getting private rented accommodation
- I also took account of the action the Council said it took in response to the failings. These included:
- The recruitment of more staff. In response to my draft decision, the Council confirmed it recruited a new team;
- Team restructuring, which included 2 senior officers to supervise and oversee the decisions made daily by 6 officers;
- In response to my draft decision the Council also explained it installed a new IT system in April 2018 which follows a flow chart of the process that customers go through which includes checklists and letter templates at key points. This will limit the risk of the errors identified in this complaint occurring again;
- It also now has a Temporary Accommodation policy which was explained to staff at a team meeting; and
- The provision of training to new officers as well as refresher training to existing ones on homelessness law and the Homelessness Reduction Act. In response to my draft decision, the Council confirmed training also includes supervision and mentoring by senior officers, including one to one meetings and ‘shadowing’ opportunities.
- In its response, it also confirmed over the next 6 months, its priority is to ‘review the customer journey/experience from beginning to end’.
- In addition, I also took account of the Council’s offer to pay Miss T £300 as a goodwill gesture because of its errors. It also agreed its housing team will work with Miss T to see if there is fresh evidence to support a new homeless application.
- The Council will, within 4 weeks of the final decision on this complaint, carry out the following:
- Provide Miss T with a written apology for the failure to deal promptly with her application and the failure to correctly consider offering her interim accommodation;
- Pay the £300 offered to Miss T for the distress (uncertainty, lost opportunity, and stress) caused by these failures; and
- Remind relevant officers of the need to make and retain accurate records of contact with applicants about interim accommodation and all offers made.
- The Ombudsman found fault on the complaint against the Council sent by Mrs S, on behalf of Miss T. The agreed action remedies the injustice caused.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman