The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms X complained about how the Council handled her homelessness application. The Council delayed while making multiple referrals to another council, and it did not give Ms X information about how to request a review of its decisions to do so. However, these faults did not cause Ms X a significant injustice. The Council was at fault when it withdrew Ms X’s homelessness application without her consent and cancelled her interim accommodation booking before the family had moved. This caused Ms X distress. The Council has agreed to apologise to Ms X. It has also agreed to review its decision letter templates and its arrangements for referrals to other councils, and to arrange staff training.
- Ms X complained the Council did not deal properly with her when she and her children became homeless when fleeing domestic violence. There were delays while the Council argued with another council (Authority B) about whose responsibility it was to take her homelessness application. The Council placed her in emergency bed and breakfast accommodation then told her to leave that accommodation, leaving her family with nowhere to go.
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)
- 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
- For this investigation, I:
- considered the information Ms X provided and discussed the complaint with her;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents it provided;
- looked at the relevant law and guidance, including the Housing Act 1996;
- considered the Ombudsman's guidance on remedies; and
- wrote to Ms X and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.
What I found
- If a council has reason to believe that an applicant may be homeless, it must make any inquiries necessary to satisfy itself what duty it owes to the applicant. As part of this, the council may make inquiries into whether the person has a local connection with another council area. (Housing Act 1996, section 184)
- If a council has reason to believe an applicant may be homeless, eligible for assistance and in priority need, it has a duty to provide interim accommodation to the applicant pending a decision on their homelessness application. This accommodation must be suitable for the family. (Housing Act 1996, section 188)
- The law says bed and breakfast (B&B) accommodation is never suitable for families with children. Councils can only use a B&B as temporary accommodation for households with children when nothing else is available. The council can only use a B&B in this way for a maximum of six weeks.
- Unless the council refers the application to another council, it must take reasonable steps to help the applicant to find suitable accommodation. This is called the ‘relief duty’. (Housing Act 1996 as amended by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, section 189B(2))
- Councils must consider applicants’ social circumstances when looking at suitability of accommodation. Councils should consider if there is any risk of violence in an area, and if so, they may help an applicant obtain accommodation in another council area. (Homelessness Code of Guidance, section 21.37)
Applications to multiple councils, and referrals from one council to another
- Applicants can make homelessness applications to more than one council at the same time. Where a council becomes aware this is the case, it can contact the other council to agree which will take the responsibility for carrying out inquiries. (Homelessness Code of Guidance, section 18.9)
- If a council considers the conditions are met for referral to another council, it has the power to notify that council. Before making a referral to another council, the notifying council must be satisfied the applicant is homeless and eligible for assistance, and therefore owed the relief duty, and the conditions for referral are met. The notifying council continues to have a duty to provide the applicant with interim accommodation until a decision is made on whether the applicant has met the conditions for referral to another council. (Homelessness Code of Guidance 2018, sections 10.30, 10.37, 13.4 and 15.16, and Housing Act 1996, sections 198(A1) and 199A(2))
- Once the notifying council has made a referral, both councils must agree whether the conditions for referral have been met. The conditions for the notifying council to refer the case to another council are met if:
- neither the applicant nor any person who might reasonably be expected to live with them has a local connection with its council area;
- the applicant, or a person who might reasonably be expected to live with them, has a local connection with the council area it intends to refer the applicant to; and
- none of them will be at risk, or threat, of domestic or other violence which is likely to be carried out, in the council area it intends to refer them to. (Homelessness Code of Guidance 2018, section 10.51)
- In May 2018, Ms X telephoned the Council’s housing advice line to say she was suffering domestic violence from family members with whom she was staying. The Council advised her about options for support and explained refuges may not agree to accommodate her children. The Council says Ms X did not attend an appointment it arranged for her three days later to discuss her housing situation.
- Ms X fled her accommodation at the end of May and contacted the Council’s out of hours helpline. The Council placed Ms X and her children into interim accommodation in a bed and breakfast (B&B) so they had accommodation until it could take, and assess, her homelessness application. It told her to go to its offices at the beginning of the next week so it could complete a homelessness application. At the B&B, the family had two rooms with en-suite bathrooms.
- Ms X attended the Council’s offices. Ms X says the homelessness officer told her there was nothing the Council could do, and she should leave the B&B. Ms X says the officer did not believe she was a victim of domestic violence. Ms X spoke to a social worker who advised her to continue staying at the B&B.
- The Council completed a homelessness application for Ms X. The officer did not tick the box on this form to record that members of the household had physical health or disability needs. However, they recorded elsewhere that Ms X had a back problem, but that all children were fit and well. The Council recorded Ms X was owed the relief duty, however the Council says it was satisfied a neighbouring council (Authority B) owed this duty to Ms X because:
- Ms X and her family had lived in Authority B’s area for several years, they had friends in the area and it was a place in which the family felt safe;
- Ms X’s children were at crucial stages of their education, attending schools in Authority B’s area; and
- Ms X’s family were registered with a GP surgery in Authority B’s area.
Ms X’s family with accommodation in the B&B in the meantime.
- The Council provided emergency interim accommodation for Ms X and her children when they became homeless, in line with the law. It continued to provide that accommodation until Authority B agreed to accommodate the household.
Ms X and her family were not left without accommodation. B&Bs are not suitable for families with children. Ms X and her family stayed in this accommodation for over seven weeks, which is slightly longer than the six weeks the law allows. During this time, however, the Council looked for private tenancies for Ms X.
- The Council was not aware of the impact of Miss X’s back problem on her requirements for accommodation in May. Ms X had stayed in the B&B for more than two weeks before making the Council aware she was struggling with the stairs because of this. The Council could have explored her back problem when she first mentioned it in May. However, this did not amount to maladministration and when she made it aware, it moved her and her children downstairs.
- The Council’s decision letter of May did not tell Ms X she had a right to request a review of its decision to refer her to Authority B. It then made the same error in its reissued letter of June. This is fault. However, Ms X did not wish to challenge this decision because her wish was to be housed by Authority B, and so this did not cause her any disadvantage.
- The Council’s referral to Authority B in May explained it felt Ms X had a local connection to Authority B. However, the law says where a person has a local connection to both areas this referral process cannot be used. The Council later accepted the family had a local connection to its area because, in any event,
Ms X was employed in its area. The Council did not consider making a referral to Authority B under section 213 of the Housing Act instead. The Council delayed while making multiple referrals to Authority B, and this is fault. However, in the circumstances this did not cause a significant injustice, because the overall delay was not attributable to the actions of this Council.
- Ms X says the Council did not issue a homelessness decision letter, despite her asking for this many times. The law changed in April 2018 and usually councils should not issue a decision until after 56 days of helping applicants to try and secure accommodation (the relief duty stage). Therefore, I would not expect the Council to have issued such a letter until later in the process. It was not at fault.
- Ms X says the Council told her to leave the B&B before Authority B had offered her alternative accommodation. The Council told Ms X it would house her until a decision was made about its referral. However, the Council withdrew Ms X’s homelessness application without her consent and cancelled the accommodation booking before Ms X’s family had moved. This was fault and caused Ms X distress.
- The Council had a duty to take steps to help Ms X to obtain suitable accommodation available for at least six months (the relief duty), until Authority B took over that duty. The Council did not accept it owed Ms X the relief duty, however it nonetheless made attempts to help Ms X find accommodation in Authority B’s area. Therefore, there is no fault in the assistance the Council provided to Ms X in trying to secure permanent housing.
- The Council has agreed to apologise to Ms X. This is to recognise the injustice caused by it withdrawing her homelessness application and cancelling her accommodation booking.
- The Council has agreed to review and amend its decision letter templates to ensure they include rights of appeal.
- The Council has agreed to review with relevant managers how it refers applicants to other councils under different parts of the homelessness legislation, and then arrange staff training.
- The Council has agreed to take the above actions within three months of my final decision. It should provide evidence to the Ombudsman of the action it has taken.
- I found fault causing injustice. The Council has agreed to my recommendations to recognise the injustice caused to Ms X and to prevent similar faults occurring in the future. I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman