The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: there was no fault in the way the Council considered Mr X’s homelessness application and his need for interim accommodation.
- Mr X is homeless. He complains about the way the Council considered his homelessness application and his need for temporary accommodation. In particular, he complains that the Council:
- wrongly decided he is not in priority need;
- provided interim accommodation that was unsuitable for his needs;
- unreasonably refused to continue accommodating him pending the outcome of his request for a review of the decision that he is not in priority need;
- officers involved in his case did not follow proper procedures, lied to him and their colleagues, did not keep accurate records, and treated him vindictively.
What I have investigated
- I investigated parts b) to d) of the complaint. I did not investigate part a) for the reasons given in paragraphs 43 and 44.
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
- I have spoken to Mr X and considered the Council’s response to my enquiries. The Council has provided documents from Mr X’s housing records. I have also seen the letters the Council sent to notify Mr X of its homelessness decision and the review decision.
- I have written to Mr X and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.
What I found
- The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 came into force on 3 April 2018. It amended Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 and placed new duties on councils to assist any eligible homeless person and to intervene at an earlier stage to try to prevent homelessness.
- Councils must take reasonable steps to help an eligible homeless person find accommodation. This is known as the “relief duty”. However, it does not mean the authority must accommodate the person.
- When a council decides the relief duty has come to an end, it must notify the applicant in writing. (Housing Act 1996, section 189B(7)). The relief duty can only end in one of the following circumstances:
- the council is satisfied the applicant has suitable accommodation which is likely to be available for at least six months; or
- the council has complied with this duty for 56 days (whether or not the applicant is still homeless); or
- the applicant has refused an offer of suitable accommodation; or
- the applicant is no longer eligible for assistance;
- the applicant has withdrawn the application; or
- the applicant has deliberately and unreasonably refused to cooperate
- A council must secure interim accommodation for applicants and their household if it has reason to believe they may be homeless, eligible for assistance and in priority need. (Housing Act 1996, section 188)
- The law says councils must ensure all accommodation provided to homeless applicants is suitable for the needs of the applicant and members of his or her household. This duty applies both to interim accommodation and accommodation provided under the main housing duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 206 and (from 3 April 2018) Homelessness Code of Guidance 17.2)
- If, after completing its inquiries, a council is satisfied an applicant is homeless, eligible for assistance, and has a priority need the council has a duty to secure that accommodation is available for their occupation. This is often referred to as the main housing duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 193 and Homelessness Code of Guidance 15.39)
- After completing its inquiries, the council must give the applicant a decision in writing. If it is an adverse decision, it must give reasons. All letters must include information about the right to request a review and the timescale for doing so. (Housing Act 1996, section 184, from 3 April 2018 Homelessness Code of Guidance 18.32 and 18.33)
- A council has a discretion, but not a duty, to accommodate someone while it considers their request for a review of a homelessness decision. It will make this decision based on the individual facts and circumstances in each case.
Mr X’s circumstances
- Mr X is a single man. Between October 2015 and July 2018 he had a licence to occupy a room in a hostel in the borough.
- In early July 2018, while he was still at the hostel, Mr X made a homelessness application to the Council. He said it was not reasonable to continue to occupy his room at the hostel. He said there was mould and disrepair and it was not suitable for medical reasons.
- Mr X completed a disability and health questionnaire on the same day to give details of his medical conditions. He said he had chronic sciatica which affected his back and legs. He listed the medication he took and the hospitals and medical centres he had attended. He said he could walk about 10 yards and did not use any walking aids. He did not receive any disability-related benefits and did not require assistance from others to manage his personal care. He said his room in the hostel was not suitable because there was not enough space to exercise and he was sleeping on a metal framed bed which made his back pain worse.
- The officer who interviewed Mr X contacted his support worker at the hostel to make enquiries. A member of the hostel staff said Mr X had used its complaints procedure. It had not found any issues with Mr X’s room. His licence was due to end on 31 July and his support worker had been working with him to try to find alternative accommodation.
- The Council asked its medical adviser to assess the information Mr X provided. The adviser noted Mr X was independently mobile and did not need help with daily living activities. The adviser considered the information on Mr X’s form and some supporting medical evidence and concluded:
“I don’t think the specific medical issues in this case are of particular significance compared to an ordinary person. The current accommodation – a self-contained room in a hostel – appears reasonable on stated medical grounds”.
- On 10 July Mr X contacted the case officer to say he had found a studio. He said this may resolve his housing problems. He said it was possible to stay for up to four years.
- Mr X moved into the studio on 25 July but left on 1 August. He then made a homelessness application to another London borough council, which I shall refer to as Council B.
- Council B put Mr X in interim accommodation in Greater London while it made inquiries into his application. On 30 August Council B referred Mr X to Waltham Forest Council because he had a local connection to that area. Waltham Forest Council accepted the referral.
- On the same day Waltham Forest Council offered Mr X interim accommodation in a privately run nightly let emergency accommodation. It did not inspect the accommodation before making this placement because it was emergency accommodation secured on a nightly basis. Mr X was allocated a double bedroom and had to share a kitchen and bathroom with other residents.
- Mr X moved in to the accommodation. He initially refused to sign the licence agreement and complete a form to claim Housing Benefit. He said the room was unsuitable for his needs. He said he should have been offered self-contained accommodation rather than a room with shared facilities. He said he was exempt from the shared accommodation rate of Housing Benefit which usually applies to people under the age of 35.
- Mr X sent an email to complain about the condition of the accommodation. He raised the following concerns:
- he could not prepare meals in the kitchen because it was so unhygienic;
- the bathroom door did not lock properly and the separate WC was not clean;
- his room was very cold and it had no fire alarm;
- interviewed Mr X to find out if there were any new facts;
- considered more than 100 emails from Mr X;
- considered the information on two disability and health questionnaires along with medical evidence from Mr X’s GP, various urgent care centres and hospital A&E departments he had attended and other medical centres where he was seen as a temporary patient;
- considered advice given by the Council’s medical advisers on three occasions;
- considered any other factors which may make Mr X significantly more vulnerable than the ordinary person when homeless;
- sent him a provisional “minded to” letter to give Mr X an opportunity to make further comments before he reached a final decision.
- referring him to a scheme based in East London that would support him with finding alternative accommodation The Council sent evidence that the case officer referred Mr X to this scheme on 5 September and a member of staff at the scheme interviewed Mr X on 11 December to assess his suitability;
- referring him to the Council’s Adult Social Care services;
- confirming he was not subject to the single room rate of Housing Benefit because he had been living in supported accommodation since 2015;
- giving him information about how to search for private rented accommodation;
- giving him contact details for a local credit union.
- Mr X considers the interim accommodation the Council placed him in on 30 August 2018 was unsuitable. He believes he should have been placed in self-contained accommodation. He also complained about the condition of the kitchen and bathroom which he shared with other residents.
- A Council officer inspected the accommodation within one week of Mr X moving in. He did not find any defects and considered it was suitable for his needs. I have considered the officer’s inspection report and photographs of the smoke alarms and fire safety notices in the property. There is nothing in his notes to indicate he found any disrepair, hazards or defects.
- Mr X is exempt from the shared accommodation rate for Housing Benefit which usually applies to people under 35 because of the time he has spent in supported accommodation at the hostel. This means he can claim Housing Benefit for a self-contained one bedroom property. But that does not mean the Council had to arrange self-contained interim accommodation for him when he was homeless. The legal duty was to arrange accommodation that was suitable for his needs. For a single person like Mr X, that could be a room in a hostel or other shared accommodation.
- Mr X and the Council disagree about the suitability of the interim accommodation. But I found no fault in the way the Council made the assessment. The Ombudsman cannot criticise the merits of a decision that was properly made because Mr X disagrees with it.
- The Council does not have a duty to accommodate all homeless applicants who request a review of an adverse homelessness decision. It has a discretionary power to do so. It must consider the individual circumstances in each case. The Reviews Manager carefully explained how he had considered the evidence, and the reasons for his decision, in his letter of 5 September 2018. He decided not to exercise discretion to accommodate Mr X pending the outcome of the review. That is a decision he was entitled to make and the Ombudsman cannot find fault when the Council has properly considered all the relevant factors and exercised its discretion.
- I found no evidence to support Mr X’s allegations that officers lied or were vindictive. The case records I have seen include several entries where Mr X made offensive or abusive comments during telephone calls to officers. Mr X has not identified any specific inaccuracies in the case records.
- I have completed the investigation and found no evidence of fault by the Council.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I did not investigate Mr X’s complaint about the Council’s decision that he is not in priority need.
- When Mr X first made this complaint, he was waiting for the Council to make a decision on his homelessness application. He has since requested a review of the decision that he is not owed the main housing duty because he is not in priority need. Mr X had the right to consider an appeal to the County Court on a point of law if he wished to challenge the review decision made in November 2018.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman