Thurrock Council (18 007 255)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 15 Jan 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr and Mrs X complained about how the Council handled their homelessness and housing register applications. The Council was not at fault for not providing them with interim accommodation as it did not have a duty to do so. The Council was at fault as it delayed making decisions on Mr and Mrs X’s housing register applications and it did not issue a decision letter when it ended its duty to relieve them of their homelessness. However, these faults did not cause them an injustice. The Council was at fault when it did not keep an appointment it booked with Mr and Mrs X. Mr and Mrs X went to extra time and trouble in visiting the Council’s offices more times than necessary, causing them stress and inconvenience. The Council has agreed to apologise and pay Mr and Mrs X £150 to recognise this.

The complaint

  1. Mr and Mrs X complained the Council failed to help them properly when they became at risk of homelessness, and then homeless. It did not keep an appointment it booked with them, and it gave them conflicting information about whether it could take a homelessness application for both Mr and Mrs X, from one of them. It refused to help them get back their possessions from the property they were thrown out from. It delayed responding to their application for the housing register. They were homeless and sleeping in their car at the time of complaining. Mr and Mrs X say this caused them distress, including worsening of Mrs X’s anxiety.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. When considering complaints, if there is a conflict of evidence, we make findings based on the balance of probabilities. This means that we will weigh up the available relevant evidence and base our findings on what we think was more likely to have happened.
  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)
  4. 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)
  5. We cannot investigate complaints about the provision or management of social housing by a council acting as a registered social housing provider. (Local Government Act 1974, paragraph 5A schedule 5, as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. For this investigation, I:
    • considered the information Mr and Mrs X provided and discussed the complaint with them;
    • 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 and the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017;
    • considered the Ombudsman's guidance on remedies; and
    • wrote to Mr and Mrs X and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.

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What I found

  1. When a person applies to a council for accommodation and it has reason to believe they may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, several duties arise. Councils must secure suitable accommodation for applicants who may be in priority need (for example people with dependent children and pregnant women) awaiting the outcome of their enquiries. Councils have no duty to provide interim accommodation for applicants who are not in priority need.
  2. Councils must make enquiries to consider whether applicants are homeless, eligible for assistance, in priority need and not intentionally homeless. This information helps councils decide whether they owe applicants the ‘main housing duty’. This is a duty to make a suitable offer of social housing or private rented accommodation. Councils have a duty to notify applicants of this decision in writing and the right to request a review of the decision.
  3. While councils are deciding whether they owe applicants the main housing duty, they owe duties to applicants who are homeless and eligible for assistance, regardless of whether they are in priority need. Councils must complete an assessment and work with applicants to identify practical and reasonable steps for the council and the applicant to take to help the applicant keep or secure suitable accommodation. These steps should be tailored to the household, and follow from the findings of the assessment, and must be provided to the applicant in writing as their personalised housing plan.
  4. Councils must take ‘reasonable steps’ to secure accommodation for any eligible homeless person. This is referred to as the ‘relief duty’. When a council decides this duty has come to an end, it must notify the applicant in writing.
  5. After completing inquiries, the council must give the applicant a decision in writing about whether it owes them the main housing duty. If the decision is not in the applicant’s favour, the letter must fully explain the reasons. All letters must include information about the right to request a review and the timescale for doing so.

Housing Allocations

  1. The law and guidance do not stipulate how quickly councils should assess applications for their housing register. The Ombudsman expects councils to assess applications in a timely way, without unnecessary delay.
  2. The Council’s standard response timescale for assessing housing register applications is 28 days.

What happened

  1. Mr and Mrs X rented a room in accommodation shared with the landlady. Their relationship with the landlady broke down and at the end of July 2018 she gave Mr and Mrs X one week’s notice to leave the property. Mr and Mrs X had applied to join the Council’s housing register in May, but in July the Council found they did not qualify as they were over the financial income limit. Mr and Mrs X made a new application for the housing register at the end of July.
  2. Mr and Mrs X contacted the Council to tell it they would be made homeless. The Council took some information down that day and told them to visit the next day to make a homelessness application, with the relevant documents. Mrs X says she asked if she could complete a homelessness application without Mr X present, as he would be at work. She says the Council told her this would be okay. I have not seen substantive evidence of this as this was not recorded in the Council’s case notes.
  3. Mrs X took a day off work and visited the Council’s offices the next day. She says she waited four and a half hours to be seen. The homelessness officer took some details about the circumstances leading to Mr and Mrs X’s homelessness. They advised Mrs X that because the application was for Mr and Mrs X, Mr X would also need to sign it. They booked Mr and Mrs X an appointment for the Friday, two days later.
  4. However, the next day the landlady locked Mr and Mrs X out of their accommodation. The police helped them to access some of their belongings but they slept in their car that night.
  5. Mr and Mrs X attended their appointment on the Friday. Mr X took the day off work to do so. The homelessness team was attending training all day and the officer who had made the appointment could not see Mr and Mrs X. Another Council officer saw them and signposted them to a support organisation. The officer that had been due to meet them later telephoned them to apologise. She made a new appointment for them the following Monday. The Council told Mr and Mrs X it could not provide them with interim accommodation. Mr and Mrs X were concerned the Council would let them sleep in their car over the weekend.
  6. At the appointment on the Monday, the Council took down further details and completed a full housing assessment for Mr and Mrs X. It took down details of Mrs X’s health needs, including anxiety and asthma. Mr and Mrs X had visited the support organisation the Council recommended, but were told nothing was available. The Council decided Mr and Mrs X were homeless and eligible but that they did not have a priority need. Therefore, the Council did not provide them with interim accommodation and it issued them a homelessness decision letter the same day, explaining why they were not in priority need. Mr and Mrs X were concerned the Council felt they were not at risk compared to others.
  7. The Council completed Mr and Mrs X’s personalised housing plan the same day. It recorded Mr and Mrs X would look for suitable private rented accommodation. The Council did not record any steps that it would take, but it recorded the Council would take “reasonable steps” to relieve their homelessness. The officer recorded they provided a list of useful websites to Mr and Mrs X and advised them to start looking for suitable accommodation.
  8. The Council gave Mr and Mrs X a letter saying it had accepted it owed them the relief duty. This letter explained their rights to request a review of the steps the Council would take under their personalised housing plan and attached the plan to this letter.
  9. Mr and Mrs X complained to the Ombudsman the following day. When we spoke to them, they were still sleeping in their car and they wanted the Council to provide them with interim accommodation. Mrs X told us she had lost four days’ work the previous week while dealing with the homelessness applications.
  10. Two weeks later, a housing officer spoke to Mr and Mrs X, who were now staying with a family member. Mr and Mrs X had found a private tenancy. The officer told them the Council could help with a deposit and rent advance if the property they found was considered affordable.
  11. The Council asked them for information about their income and outgoings to assess whether the accommodation was affordable. Mr X told the Council the rent was £950 a month, and they needed to pay a deposit and one month’s rent upfront. The Council says it called Mr and Mrs X to suggest a cheaper property. Mr and Mrs X say the Council did not tell them about this property.
  12. The Council officer recorded in their notes that Mr and Mrs X did not need help from the Council anymore and wished to withdraw their homelessness application. The officer recorded Mrs X said they would get the deposit money from elsewhere instead. Mrs X later told me the Council had refused to help them with a deposit.
  13. Mr and Mrs X moved into the private rented property at the end of August 2018. Mrs X told me they were satisfied they could afford it. The Council told them by telephone it had closed their case, and it did not write to them.

Analysis

Homelessness

  1. The law requires councils to assess applicants and determine any duties owed on the day they first tell the Council they are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The Council delayed taking the homelessness application. I have not seen substantive evidence the Council told Mrs X it could take an application for both Mr and Mrs X without Mr X being present. However, the Council could have taken a homelessness application for Mrs X when she attended alone, and then updated the assessment when it saw Mr X. The Council arranged an appointment it could not keep, when Mr and Mrs X were already homeless and sleeping in their car. The Council took a full application and completed Mr and Mrs X’s personalised housing plan a week after they first contacted it, and by this time they had already been homeless for four days. This delay is fault.
  2. Had the Council taken a full homelessness application earlier, the outcome would not have been different. On balance, the Council could not have prevented their homelessness in the specific circumstances, and there was not a delay in the Council accommodating them as it had no duty to do so.
  3. However, the Council’s error with appointments and not taking a full application from Mrs X when she attended alone meant Mr and Mrs X both went to the added time and trouble of attending the Council’s offices multiple times. Mr and Mrs X both took time off work. I cannot say all of this was due to fault as they would still have been required to visit the Council’s offices had it acted without fault. In recommending a financial remedy I have accounted for the fact Mr and Mrs X lost the opportunity to work for one day, and the added stress and inconvenience this caused.
  4. The police helped Mr and Mrs X to get their possessions back. The Council did not have any duty to help Mr and Mrs X in this regard. Any actions the Council could have taken against the landlady in its role as a social landlord would not be within the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. I will not investigate this issue further as there is no suggestion I would find fault.
  5. The Council’s decision Mr and Mrs X were not in priority need is one they could have appealed. They did not do so. I will not investigate this decision as it was reasonable for Mr and Mrs X to challenge this decision, by asking the Council for a review and ultimately taking the matter to court if they wished to.
  6. Mr and Mrs X were homeless for a month, including sofa-surfing and sleeping in their car. While the Council did not have a duty to provide them with interim accommodation during this period, it had a duty to provide them with a personalised housing plan and to take reasonable steps to help them secure accommodation.
  7. The Council issued the personalised housing plan promptly. The plan included no specific reasonable steps the Council would take to relieve Mr and Mrs X of their homelessness. Mr and Mrs X had the right to appeal any reasonable steps listed in the plan, and they did not do so. They were aware of this right as the Council explained this in its relief duty decision letter. I consider it would have been reasonable for Mr and Mrs X to use this right and so I have not investigated this decision.
  8. While the Council did not agree to any specific steps, it did take action towards relieving Mr and Mrs X’s homelessness. It signposted them to information on the internet and a support organisation. It says it found cheaper accommodation for them, however Mr and Mrs X debate that this happened. In any event, Mr and Mrs X were satisfied with the property they had already found. The Council offered help with a deposit and upfront rent for private rented accommodation.
  9. Mr and Mrs X told me the Council then refused to help them with the deposit and upfront rent. The Council recorded in its case notes that Mr and Mrs X decided to get the funds from elsewhere. The information provided to me from both parties is inconsistent. The Council recorded in its earlier case notes it would help with a deposit and rent if the accommodation was affordable. The Council did not consider the accommodation Mr and Mrs X then found was affordable. The Council decided it could not provide money for the deposit and upfront rent for this particular property, and so Mr and Mrs X decided to find the funds elsewhere because they were satisfied with this specific property. The Council was entitled to come to this decision.
  10. The Council did not issue a letter to Mr and Mrs X when it ended its relief duty. The Council has a legal duty to issue these decisions in writing. That it did not do so is fault. This left Mr and Mrs X without written information about the reasons for this decision and their rights to request a review of it. Had the Council issued a letter, I do not believe Mr and Mrs X would have requested a review. They were satisfied with the private rented accommodation they found themselves.

Housing register

  1. The Council exceeded its timescale by 15 days for Mr and Mrs X’s first housing register application. It says this was due to a combination of high volume of applications, staff shortages and a system change. The Council took 50 days longer than its timescale to make a decision on their second application. These delays are fault. However, this caused Mr and Mrs X no injustice. They were not eligible the first time they applied, and their second application has an effective date of July 2018 as this is when they applied. The delay did not cause them to be lower on the housing list.

Agreed action

  1. The Council has agreed to apologise and pay Mr and Mrs X £150 within one month of my final decision. It should provide evidence to the Ombudsman.

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Final decision

  1. I have found fault causing injustice and the Council has agreed to my recommendations to remedy this. I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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