The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss C complains about the way the Council dealt with her approach to it about threatened homelessness. In particular, she complains about the conduct of an officer who interviewed her. The Ombudsman does not have the evidence to uphold the complaint about what happened in the interview. But we uphold a complaint that the Council did not refer Miss C’s contact on for a homeless assessment.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Miss C, complains about:
- the conduct of an officer who interviewed her about her threatened homelessness;
- when responding to her complaint, the Council should have checked CCTV evidence, as there was a camera in the interview room. That would have confirmed her version of events;
- problems with later contact with the Council.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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
- As part of the investigation, I have:
- considered the complaint and the documents provided by Miss C;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered its response;
- spoken to Miss C;
- I have sent my draft decision to Miss C and the Council and considered their comments.
What I found
- Somebody living in a spare room in somebody’s house is not, legally, a tenant. Instead they are a lodger (legally an ‘excluded occupier’). Excluded occupiers have less rights than tenants and the landlord only needs to give them ‘reasonable notice’ to leave (usually 28 days).
- The law about homeless applications says that councils have a full duty to re-house applicants who are eligible, homeless or threatened with homelessness, in priority need, not intentionally homeless and who have a local connection. (Part VII of the 1996 Housing Act)
- The Act says that a person is threatened with homelessness if it is likely she will become homeless within 28 days. It also says pregnant women have a priority need.
- Where a council is satisfied that an applicant is eligible and either homeless or threatened with homelessness, it must assess her needs.
The Council’s complaints procedure
- The Council has a two stage complaints procedure:
- Stage One is where the team the complaint is about can respond.
- Stage Two – Review. The complaint should be reviewed by the Customer Care service. A senior officer, who has had no prior involvement in the case, will review the complaint.
- At the time the complaint is about, Miss C was pregnant. She worked in Westminster. She was a lodger in a property in the Borough. Her landlady had served her a notice to quit the property by 5 March.
- On 23 February 2018 Miss C attended an interview with a housing officer (Officer D). Miss C says this was the first time she had been for an interview, although she had earlier told the Council she would be homeless in March. She says she could not believe the way Officer D treated her during the interview. She became more and more rude as the interview went on.
- Officer D’s record of the interview notes:
- ‘Customer became quite abrasive and hostile, calling me passive aggressive, and angry there were no records on our system of her previous calls’.
- She explained the purpose of the interview was to take notes, so she could assist if possible, or refer to Housing Options if more complex.
- Advised Miss C against leaving the accommodation.
- Advised of the information the Council needed to see. Ms C did not bring any documents with her.
- Advised Miss C she would refer her case for contact. The usual time-frame for that was 10 working days. But given the deadline, Officer D would ask for this to be earlier.
- Told Miss C she could make a complaint at reception.
- Miss C approached the Council on 23 February to seek advice.
- Miss C could not provide any information at that meeting.
- So the Council could not accurately assess any prevention, relief or interim housing duty.
- Miss C agreed with the Council’s view and she had decided to go to Westminster City Council to make a homelessness application.
- The Council’s view was Westminster City Council should not have sent her back to Kingston, as she had said she wanted to make her application to Westminster.
- Apologised for the issues Miss C had raised.
- Advised the Council had changed the way it managed its duty system.
- Said it had reminded the team of the Council’s expectations on customer service, especially in communicating with customers.
- By the time Miss C complained, it had wiped the film in the camera. Anyway, it was not wired for sound.
- Officer D had left the Council’s employment.
- Housing Options’ only records of contact from Miss C were 23 February and 5 March.
- The senior officer who wrote the stage one response had gone on annual leave. So she asked Officer E to send it out in his name.
- The issue it had reminded its team about was:
‘…that when dealing at first contact to be clear on what the duty triage service was and was not, as well as being clear on the service offer/be positive and not to start any conversation with a negative approach which could lead customers to construe an unhelpful service or a 'don't care' service. Whilst the officer was not at fault for what she said or asked, it was timely to remind staff of the need to be seen as open and not closed so as to avoid any misunderstandings.’
Was there fault by the Council?
- The Council says the interview Miss C attended in February was a triage interview for advice. It also says Miss C did not provide it with enough information assess her housing needs. That may be so. But Miss C did provide enough advice – that she was pregnant and that her landlord had given her a notice to quit the property – that should have alerted the Council that Miss C was likely eligible and threatened with homelessness.
- In those circumstances, the Council should have referred the first enquiry on to Housing Options for it to invite Miss C to make a full homelessness assessment. It seems that may also have been Officer D’s view, as she advised Miss C she would refer her case on. But the Council has sent me no evidence that it did refer Miss C’s 23 February enquiry. Or that it made any contact with Miss C before she re-visited it on 5 March, the day she had earlier told it was the end of her notice period. My view is that lack of referral and resulting delay in contacting Miss C was fault.
- I recognise Miss C’s concerns about how Officer D carried out the 23 February interview. But Officer D has made a record that conflicts with Miss C’s view of what happened. Because of those conflicting accounts of what happened, I do not have the evidence that allows me to make a finding of fault on this issue.
- Miss C says she contacted the Council again on 3 March. I do not doubt that is the case. But Housing Options says that contact was not to it. Again, without further information, it would be speculative of me to decide what happened on that day.
- We do know that Miss C went to the Council on 5 March, when Housing Options officers met her. Those officers accepted the Council had a duty towards her. But officers’ view was Miss C also had enough connection to Westminster City Council that meant she would also be eligible to it. The Council’s records are not clear about how it arrived at the view that Miss C had enough connection to Westminster to make her eligible to make an application there. Miss C decided she would prefer to approach Westminster.
- The Council did not follow its own procedure when responding to Miss C’s complaint. The Stage Two response should have been written by a senior officer, who had not been involved in the case.
Did the fault cause an injustice?
- If the Council had acted without fault, my view is it is likely to have contacted Miss C, to offer her a homeless application, before 3 March. By not doing so, the Council led to Miss C being put to some unnecessary time and trouble and stress in liaising between two Councils.
- That is an injustice that demands a remedy. But we do not yet know the full impact of the fault. This is because Miss C has made an application to a different council (which may not have happened, but for the fault). But, as Westminster has not yet made a decision, it is unclear what the outcome of Miss C’s application to it will be.
- Within a month of my final decision the Council has agreed to:
- Write to Miss C apologising for the fault in not referring her contact for an interview about a full application.
- Make a symbolic payment of £100 to Miss C to reflect the distress and unnecessary time and trouble the fault led to.
- Remind the relevant staff of the Council’s complaints procedure.
- I uphold this complaint. The Council has agreed to my recommendations. So I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman