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London Borough of Merton (18 007 593)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 28 Feb 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains about the way the Council handled his homelessness application. The Council is at fault for delaying sending a personalised housing plan and decision letter, for not offering interim accommodation, and for not advising about its housing register or how it could help with a deposit. The Council should pay Mr X £500 to remedy the lack of suitable accommodation and the uncertainty caused by the other failings.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains the Council
    • delayed deciding his homelessness application;
    • failed to tell him it could offer assistance with a deposit;
    • failed to tell him he might be eligible for sheltered accommodation; and
    • delayed responding to his complaint.

He also says Council officers were rude and made racist comments.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone can appeal to a tribunal. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to appeal. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(a), as amended)
  2. In this case the Council has decided Mr X is not vulnerable and therefore he is not in priority need. This means it is not under a duty to find accommodation for him. Mr X has a right of review and appeal rights if he thinks this decision is wrong. It was reasonable for him to exercise these rights. Therefore, I have not considered whether the decision was correct.
  3. 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)
  4. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I spoke to Mr X and considered the information he gave me. I considered the Council’s replies to my enquiries. I considered relevant law and guidance as set out below and our guidance on remedies.
  2. I gave the Council and Mr X the opportunity to comment on two draft decisions. I considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

  1. Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities set out councils’ powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
  2. When a person applies to a council for accommodation and it has reason to believe they may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, a number of duties arise, including:
    • to make enquiries;
    • to secure suitable accommodation for certain applicants pending the outcome of the enquiries;
    • to notify the applicant of the decision in writing and the right to request a review of the decision.
  3. Councils should 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 (PHP). (Housing Act 1996, section 189A and Homelessness Code of Guidance chapter 11)
  4. If the Council thinks someone is homeless and in priority need, it must, if the person asks for it, provide emergency accommodation until it has finished assessing the homelessness application.  Examples of priority need are:
    • people with dependent children;
    • people with serious health problems;
    • some elderly people.
  5. The statutory guidance says “the duty to issue written notifications should not prevent a housing authority from taking immediate action to assist an applicant where necessary” (Homelessness Code of Guidance, para 11.25).
  6. Councils must provide information and advice free of charge to anyone in their district on:
    • preventing homelessness;
    • securing accommodation when homeless;
    • the rights of people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness;
    • the duties of the council;
    • any help that is available from the council or anyone else, for people in the council’s district who are homeless or may become homeless (whether or not they are threatened with homelessness), and
    • how to access that help.

What happened

Homelessness application

  1. Mr X became homeless when his home was re-possessed. He asked the Council for help at the end of April 2018. He told the Council he had been living on savings from some time since he was made redundant, had recently been staying at the house of friends who were away at the time, and had secured emergency bed and breakfast accommodation the previous night. The Council told him at the initial interview that it was likely it would decide he was not vulnerable and was therefore not in priority need. It therefore decided it did not need to offer interim accommodation.
  2. Also at the initial interview the officer advised Mr X about claiming benefits and told him to go to a specific job centre to do so. Mr X says this was the wrong office. He says this wasted time and money which he could not afford at the time. The Council accept its Welfare Benefits team gave incorrect information to the housing officer.
  3. The Council says Mr X completed a vulnerability assessment the day after the initial interview. The assessment was sent to its medical as a matter of routine adviser in early May 2018 for advice about whether there were any other issues it should consider when deciding if Mr X was vulnerable and in priority need. The medical adviser replied two weeks later. The medical adviser commented on the lack of information sent but said there was no evidence Mr X was vulnerable. The Council says the medical advice did not change its view about Mr X’s status.
  4. The Council issued a personalised housing plan (PHP) two weeks after he applied as homeless. This gave advice about finding suitable accommodation.
  5. The Council referred Mr X to a hostel and an organisation that supports people into housing once Mr X had provided evidence he was claiming benefits.
  6. The medical adviser’s report was sent in mid May and the Council issued its decision letter at the beginning of June 2018. It decided Mr X was not vulnerable so he was not in priority need. It set out his review and appeal rights.
  7. Mr X says in the period April to June 2018 he was sleeping on the night bus or on the streets and was in the library during the day. He was therefore very frustrated by the apparent delay in the Council issuing its decision and making referrals to housing charities.

Attitude of council staff

  1. Mr X says after the initial interview he had an interview with two different officers. He says they did not have any information from the first interview so they had to ask him for the same information again. He also says the officers were rude and made racist comments.
  2. Mr X complained to a housing manager on 3 May. The manager spoke to the officers Mr X complained about. I have seen the manager’s hand-written notes and a written account by one of the officers who interviewed Mr X. The written account confirms the officers did not have the notes prepared by the officer who carried out the initial interview. The officer did not agree either of them were rude or made racist comments.
  3. The Council says an equality officer reviewed the case at stage 2 of its complaints handling process and found no evidence of bias by officers.

Advice and assistance

  1. Mr X says he has no previous experience of being homeless and had no knowledge of how the system worked. He says he didn’t know he could apply to the Council’s housing register and the Council did not tell him. Therefore, he did not apply. He says a charity later advised him he could apply for sheltered housing for people over 55 years old.
  2. The Council’s decision letter of June 2018 says its decision Mr X was not in priority need did not affect his right to apply to its housing register. In its stage 2 complaint response it said:
    • it does not refer people to sheltered housing schemes;
    • there is a separate band on its housing register for over 55s (band F);
    • applications within band F are prioritised on a points-based system but Mr X was not in a priority group for re-housing; and
    • it suggested a housing association that Mr X could apply directly to.
  3. Mr X also says the Council did not tell him it could assist with a deposit if he found a property to rent privately. He says the Council only told him about this on 25 June, after he had complained.
  4. The Council did offer to help with private renting in its stage 1 complaint response on 25 June 2018. In its stage 2 complaint response the Council accepted it did not explain to Mr X that the referral to the housing charity involved it paying a deposit.

Complaints handling

  1. Mr X complains the Council failed to meet its timescales for responding to his complaint. He also complains the Council stopped responding to his emails after he complained.
  2. The Council operates a two-stage complaints process. It says its timescale for stage 1 is 20 working days and it accepts it was one day late in responding. It says it wrote to Mr X on 29 May to say it would respond by 22 June. On 21 June, it confirmed the deadline for responding was 22 June. The Council accepts it did not tell him there would be a delay in responding. It responded in the evening of Monday 25 June.
  3. The Council’s timescale for stage 2 is 25 working days. It received Mr X’s stage 2 complaint on 26 June, acknowledged it on and responded on 27 July 2018. It says there was a delay in telling Mr X it had received the stage 2 complaint, which it did on 3 July. It said it would respond by 31 July. Also on 3 July it explained it would deal with all Mr X’s questions and concerns in its stage 2 response. Mr X was unhappy with the decision to deal with all the issues together as this delayed a response on questions he said were not part of his complaint.

My findings

Homelessness application

  1. The Council explained to Mr X at the initial meeting it was likely to decide he was not in priority need. In its comments on the first draft decision the Council says it had decided Mr X was not in priority need and told him this at the first interview. However, it did not at that time issue a decision letter.
  2. Instead it asked Mr X to complete a vulnerability assessment, which it sent to its medical adviser. It says it referred the case to a medical adviser as a matter of routine because a vulnerability form had been completed, although it could not send any detailed information for the adviser to consider. It did not issue a decision letter until it had received the medical adviser’s report. Therefore, the referral to the medical adviser caused a delay in issuing the decision letter. This delay is fault. This fault resulted in a delay before Mr X could ask for a review of the decision and caused Mr X uncertainty about whether and how the Council would help him.
  3. It is not clear why the PHP was not issued immediately after the initial interview. The statutory guidance says Councils should take reasonable steps to issue this as soon as possible. Although it says it agreed the appropriate steps both the Council and Mr X would take at the initial interview, it took 2 weeks for the Council to issue the PHP.
  4. In its stage 2 response the Council accepted it had not sent the decision letter or PHP in a “timely manner”. It now says there is no statutory time limit for issuing a decision letter and this was issued 27 working days after the application. It also says Mr X did not suffer an injustice as he did not request a review. The statutory guidance does not set out a timescale but its wording envisages the PHP and decision letter will be sent as soon as possible. If the Council has made its decision at the first interview there is no reason to delay sending a decision letter. Whether or not Mr X asked for a review he suffered from some uncertainty in that period and his opportunity to request a review was delayed.
  5. The Council told Mr X at the initial interview that he would need to claim benefits before it could refer him to the two housing charities. Referrals were made when Mr X providing evidence of his benefits, which he only claimed after the initial interview.
  6. The Council has said it assessed Mr X as not being vulnerable or in priority need and therefore it did not offer him interim accommodation while it made enquiries. However, the fact that it referred the case to its medical adviser suggests there was some doubt about whether Mr X was vulnerable. In such cases, the Council should offer interim accommodation. The Council did not consider offering interim accommodation. This is fault. This fault means Mr X was deprived of suitable accommodation while the Council made its enquiries and a decision on his homelessness application.
  7. If the Council is requesting medical advice as a matter of routine it is creating unnecessary delays for homeless people seeking assistance. The Council should only request medical advice where it has doubts about a person’s medical needs and the impact on their housing or entitlement to accommodation.
  8. The Council accepts it gave Mr X incorrect information about claiming benefits. This meant Mr X wasted time and money going to the wrong job centre. The Council has offered to pay Mr X £25 for the financial loss and inconvenience he suffered.

Attitude of council staff

  1. There is a conflict of evidence about the interview with two officers. Mr X says they were rude and made racist comments. The officers say they were not rude and did not make racist comments. I am not able to decide which of the two accounts is correct. I am therefore unable to reach a conclusion on this part of the complaint.
  2. The officer’s notes state the two officers did not have access to the notes made at the first interview, which confirms Mr X’s account that he had to answer the same questions again. It is good practice to ensure that information is added to the Council’s database as soon as possible after an interview so it is available for other officers to see. However, in this case, as the second interview was only a few days after the first one I do not consider this amounts to administrative fault.

Advice and assistance

  1. Mr X says the Council did not tell him he could apply to its housing register nor that there was a specific band for those over 55. The Council has not demonstrated it advised him about this when he first approached it. It did explain this after Mr X complained.
  2. Mr X also says the Council did not tell him it could assist with a deposit if he wanted to look for private rented accommodation. It told him it could do so in its stage 1 response. It says the referral to the housing charity would have meant it paid a deposit but it did not explain this to Mr X until its stage 2 complaint response.
  3. This failure to provide advice is fault. This fault led to further uncertainty for Mr X about whether and how the Council could assist him.

Complaints handling

  1. The Council accepts its stage 1 response was late by one working day. This is not a significant delay and does not amount to fault. Its stage 2 response was sent within its timescales. It acknowledged receipt of both complaints and told Mr X its timescale for responding.
  2. It was sensible and practical for the Council to reply to all the questions Mr X asked in one letter. It explained this to Mr X on 3 July 2018.

Agreed action

  1. The Council will, within one month of the date of the final decision, apologise to Mr X for:
    • the delay in sending its decision letter;
    • its failure to offer interim accommodation while it made enquiries and a decision on his homelessness application; and
    • its failure to explain Mr X could apply to its housing register and that it could assist with a deposit.
  2. The Council will pay Mr X £350 for failing to provide interim accommodation for just over a month while it made enquiries about the application. This is in line with our guidance on remedies. In addition, it should pay Mr X £150 for the uncertainty caused by the failure to provide adequate advice about his housing situation. For the avoidance of doubt, this sum includes £25 already offered for the inconvenience caused by the Council telling Mr X to go to the wrong job centre.
  3. The Council will, within three months of the final decision:
    • review its processes to ensure that it gives all relevant information to those who are homelessness or threatened with homelessness, including information about applying to its housing register and information about financial support it can offer those seeking private rented accommodation; and
    • review its processes to ensure that where there is some doubt about vulnerability which means further enquiries are needed, it should consider offering interim accommodation.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. I have found fault leading to personal injustice. I have recommended action to remedy that injustice and prevent reoccurrence of the faults, which the Council has agreed.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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