The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss B complains about the Council’s lack of housing help when she and her two children were made homeless. Miss B says the Council offered her unsuitable interim accommodation which resulted in her sleeping in a tent, and did not accept the main housing duty. The Council was not at fault for the matters Miss B complains about and it was reasonable for Miss B to use her review and appeal rights to challenge the Council’s decision. But, the Council should have offered Miss B short term accommodation when it made its decision on her homelessness application. The Council has agreed to now make this offer. So, we have completed our investigation.
- The complainant, who I will refer to as Miss B, complains about the Council’s lack of housing help when she and her two children were made homeless in July 2018. Miss B says because of the lack of help from the Council she and her children have been living in a tent in her mother’s garden. Specifically, Miss B says:
- The Council wrongly told her she did not have a temporary accommodation appointment when she attended the Council offices on 3 July even though this had been arranged by the Council. Miss B says she had to plead for several hours before the Council provided her with emergency accommodation at a hotel.
- The Council offered her unsuitable bed and breakfast accommodation, which was too small and could not safely accommodate three beds, while it considered her homelessness application.
- The Council did not tell her that if she refused the offer the Council would not make another offer of interim accommodation.
- The Council wrongly decided it did not owe her the main homelessness duty because she was intentionally homeless.
- The review process set out by the Council did not comply with the law because it did not involve an independent person or Head of Housing considering the review.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated all Miss B’s complaints apart from her complaint about the Council’s decision on her homelessness application (fourth bullet point above). I have addressed this complaint in the ‘Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate’ section at the end of this statement.
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)
- 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)
- 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 considered Miss B’s complaint and the supporting documents she sent. I have made enquiries to the Council and have considered the information provided by the Council in response. I have also sent a draft version of this statement to Miss B and the Council and have considered the comments I received in response.
What I found
- Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 - as amended by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 - and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities set out councils’ powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
- Someone is threatened with homelessness if, when asking from assistance from the Council on or after 3 April 2018, he or she is likely to become homeless within 56 days. (Housing Act 1996, section 175(4))
- Councils must complete an assessment if they are satisfied an applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness. Councils must notify the applicant of the assessment. 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. (Housing Act 1996, section 189A and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraphs 11.6 and 11.18)
- If Councils are satisfied applicants are threatened with homelessness and eligible for assistance, they must take a homelessness application.
- They must also help them to secure that accommodation does not stop being available for their occupation. This is called the Prevention duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 195)
- Councils must take reasonable steps to secure accommodation for any eligible homeless person. This is called the Relief duty. When a council decides this duty has come to an end, it must notify the applicant in writing. (Housing Act 1996, section 189B)
- 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 have a priority need. (Housing Act 1996, section 188)
- The Code of Guidance says:
Where an applicant rejects an offer of interim accommodation (or accepts and moves into the interim accommodation and then later rejects it), this will bring the housing authority’s interim accommodation duty to an end – unless it is reactivated by any change of circumstances. Note, however, that an applicant’s rejection of interim accommodation does not end other duties that the housing authority may owe under Part 7. (Homelessness Code of Guidance 15.22)
- 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 to interim accommodation and accommodation provided under the main homelessness duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 206 and (from 3 April 2018) Homelessness Code of Guidance 17.2)
- Bed and breakfast (B&B) accommodation can only be used for households which include a pregnant woman or dependent child when no other accommodation is available and then for no more than six weeks. B&B is accommodation which is not self-contained, not owned by the Council or a registered provider of social housing and where the toilet, washing, or cooking facilities are shared with other households. (Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2003 and from 3 April 2018 Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraph 17.32)
- After completing inquiries, the council must give the applicant a decision in writing. If it is an adverse decision, 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 Act 1996, section 184, since 3 April 2018 Homelessness Code of Guidance 18.32 and 18.33)
- If a council is satisfied someone is eligible, homeless, in priority need and unintentionally homeless it will owe them the main homelessness duty. Generally, the Council carries out the duty by arranging temporary accommodation until it makes a suitable offer of social housing or private rented accommodation. (Housing Act 1996, section 193)
- If a review request is made, the review must be carried out by someone who was not involved in the original decision and who is more senior to the original decision maker. The reviewing officer needs to consider any information relevant to the period before the decision was made (even if only obtained afterwards) as well as any new relevant information the Council has obtained since the decision. (The Homelessness (Review Procedure etc.) Regulations 2018, Homelessness Code of Guidance Chapter 19)
- The Code of Guidance says:
On reaching a decision that an applicant has priority need and is intentionally homeless, the housing authority must secure accommodation for a period of time that will provide a reasonable opportunity for them to find their own accommodation.
In determining the period of time for which accommodation will be secured under section 190(2) housing authorities must consider each case on its merits. A few weeks may provide the applicant with a reasonable opportunity to secure accommodation for themselves. However, some applicants might require longer and others, particularly where the housing authority provides pro-active and effective assistance, might require less time. Homelessness Code of Guidance 15.13, 15.14)
- Until recently Miss B was living with her teenage son and daughter in a private rented property. In early 2018 Miss B’s landlord started eviction proceedings and obtained an order for possession which required Miss B to leave the property by 3 July.
- On 13 June Miss B asked the Council for housing help. The Council arranged an appointment for 29 June so the Council could do an assessment of Miss B’s housing needs. The appointment went ahead as arranged on 29 June. The Council did an assessment of Miss B’s housing situation and need for housing. The Council also started a Personalised Housing Plan with Miss B. The plan set out what both Miss B and the Council would do to try to help secure housing for Miss B. The housing officer also made a temporary accommodation placement appointment for 3 July, the day Miss B was required to leave the property.
- Miss B went to the Council offices on 3 July, the day of eviction, as agreed with the Council. The Homeless Accommodation Officer who saw Miss B was not aware of her appointment. Miss B says she had to plead for accommodation for several hours and eventually the Council provided her and her children with hotel accommodation which was an emergency placement.
- On 4 July the Council accepted it owed Miss B the relief duty now she was homeless rather than threatened with homelessness. The Council said under the relief duty it had until 30 August (56 days) to help Miss B find housing. On the same day Miss B put in a complaint to the Council about its response to her request for housing help.
- On 6 July the housing officer who arranged the appointment for 3 July phoned Miss B to apologise for not putting the appointment in the Council’s diary or telling the Council’s Homeless Accommodation Officer about it.
- On 10 July the Council offered Miss B alternative interim accommodation. The accommodation was a double bedroom with a shower room in a guest house. The room had two single beds and a fold-up bed. Cooking facilities were shared with other guests.
- Miss B visited the property on 12 July. Miss B says the room was too small for her family. There were only two beds and if she put the fold-up bed in front of the door, as suggested by the owner, it would have been a fire hazard. Miss B says she told the Council she did not consider the room was suitable for her family. Miss B also says she provided the Council with a letter from her doctor to support her view that the accommodation was unsuitable.
- The Council considered the accommodation was suitable for Miss B’s family. The Council says it told Miss B that no further offers of temporary accommodation would be made if she refused this offer. Miss B disputes this and says she was never told the consequences of refusing the offer. Miss B told the Council she was now staying with her children in a tent in the garden of her mother’s house.
- This resulted in the Council making a safeguarding referral, with Miss B’s consent, to social services.
- The next day the Council wrote a letter to Miss B saying it had discharged its duty to provide her with interim accommodation. The Council explained why it considered the property was suitable for Miss B and her family. The letter also advised Miss B to contact social services. The Council says Miss B collected the letter from the Council offices.
- In mid July the Council responded to the complaint at stage 1 of its complaints procedure. The Council again apologised for the Homeless Accommodation Officer not being aware of Miss B’s appointment on 3 July. But, the Council said it fully explained to Miss B at the time the consequences of refusing the offer of interim accommodation.
- Miss B put in a stage 2 complaint because she was not happy with the stage 1 response. The Council responded at stage 2 of its complaints procedure in late July. Apart from the fault the Council had already accepted regarding the 3 July appointment, the Council did not accept it was at fault.
- On 15 August the Council sent Miss B a ‘minded-to’ letter on her homelessness application. The Council said its view was it did not owe Miss B the main housing duty because Miss B was intentionally homeless.
- Miss B sent an email to the Council with comments on the Council’s ‘minded-to’ letter.
- On 23 August the Council sent by email its decision on Miss B’s homelessness application. The Council decided Miss B was homeless, eligible for assistance and in priority need for housing. But, the Council decided it did not owe Miss B the main housing duty because it considered she was intentionally homeless due to a period of rent arrears. The Council asked Miss B for her consent to refer her case to social services for an assessment. The Council also provided the phone number for social services. The letter told Miss B she had the right to ask for a review of the decision.
- Later that day Miss B sent an email to the Council in response. Miss B said she would be asking for a review of the Council’s decision. Miss B also asked how to do this.
- The Council’s Housing Options Team Leader responded by saying the decision letter set out the process for the review of decisions. The Team Leader said Miss B had 21 days to put in her review request. The Team Leader told Miss B the request must be made to her as reviewing officer. The Team Leader added that Miss B’s email of 23 August was not a review request.
- Miss B was concerned that the reviewing officer was not an independent person, which the law required. Miss B says she sought advice from a charity and another council and was told the review had to be undertaken by an independent person and the Head of Housing. Miss B says if she put in a review request to the Team Leader she knew it would just result in the same outcome.
- Miss B says during this period she tried to speak to the Head of Housing at the Council about this, but her emails and phone calls were ignored. Miss B says she also contacted the courts but was told she would have to pay a fee, which she could not afford, to put in an appeal against the Council’s decision on her homelessness application.
- In September Miss B complained to us.
- The Council’s response to my enquiries included the following comments:
- Regarding the guest house accommodation, there was enough space to move freely in and out of the room with all three beds set up. There would only be restricted access to the wardrobe with the third bed set up. (The Council also provided a plan of the room with dimensions).
- The case notes show that on 3 July Miss B came to the Council offices at 12 noon but there is no further information to show how long it took staff to offer Miss B accommodation that day.
- On 10 and 11 July three Council officers advised Miss B if she refused the offer of interim accommodation at the guest house, the Council would not make any further offers.
- There is no requirement for the head of service to be involved in the review process for a homelessness decision. The Housing Options Team Leader is senior to the officer who made the decision and had not been involved in making this decision. The Council met the requirements of the review process.
- I will now address each of Miss B’s complaints.
The Council wrongly told her she did not have a temporary accommodation appointment when she attended the Council offices on 3 July even though this had been arranged by the Council. Miss B says she had to plead for several hours before the Council provided her with emergency accommodation at a hotel.
- The Council has accepted it was at fault for wrongly telling Miss B she did not have a temporary accommodation appointment when she went to the Council offices on 3 July. The Council has apologised to Miss B for this fault and the distress she was caused on the day. I recognise Miss B suffered distress by what happened. But, the Council arranged emergency accommodation for Miss B later that day, albeit Miss B says she had to plead for this. My view is the Council’s acceptance of fault and apology to Miss B is a suitable remedy for the distress Miss B suffered. So, further action by the Council is not warranted.
The Council offered her unsuitable bed and breakfast accommodation, which was too small and could not safely accommodate three beds.
- There is a disagreement between Miss B and the Council about whether the offer of the room at the guest house was suitable accommodation. The accommodation was being offered on a short term basis while the Council considered Miss B’s homelessness application. The accommodation appears to be B&B accommodation because Miss B would have shared cooking facilities with other residents. But, local authorities can provide such accommodation on a short term basis.
- The plan and dimensions of the room, which the Council has provided, indicates there was enough room to accommodate a fold up bed without blocking the door to the room.
- Also, the Council considered the letter from Miss B’s doctor which Miss B provided to support her claim the room was not suitable for her family. So, I find the Council was not at fault for offering Miss B this accommodation.
The Council did not tell her that if she refused the offer the Council would not make another offer of interim accommodation.
- I have placed some weight on Miss B’s comments that the Council did not tell her that it would not make another offer of interim accommodation if she refused the offer of accommodation at the guest house. But, I have also placed some weight on the Council’s comments that three Council officers told Miss B this information. Also, the Council’s comments are largely supported by its case records which it provided in response to my enquiries. The records say that two officers on 10 and 11 July told Miss B the Council would not make another offer of accommodation. So, I cannot say on balance the Council was at fault.
The review process set out by the Council did not comply with the law because it did not involve an independent person or Head of Housing considering the review.
- The Council is correct to say that the law does not require the Head of Housing to undertake reviews of decisions on homelessness applications. The law requires the review to be carried out by someone who was not involved in the original decision and who is more senior to the original decision maker. The Council says the Housing Options Team Leader is senior to the officer who made the decision and was not involved in making this decision. The information does not suggest the review process set out by the Council was affected by fault. I have not seen any information to suggest the Team Leader was involved in making the decision. But, in any case it would have been open to Miss B to put in a review request even though she had some concerns about the process.
- I find the Council has followed the new requirements put in place by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. But, there is one homelessness duty, which was not affected by the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which I find the Council has not followed.
- The law requires a local housing authority which has decided an applicant is in priority need but is intentionally homeless to secure accommodation for a period of time that will provide a reasonable opportunity for the applicant to find their own accommodation. This duty applied to the Council’s decision on Miss B’s homelessness application. The Council’s decision letter refers to this duty but only offers advice to Miss B on securing accommodation. I recognise that the Council had already discharged its section 188 duty to provide Miss B with interim accommodation. But, the short term accommodation duty to those in priority need but intentionally homeless is a separate duty which applied in Miss B’s case.
- It is possible Miss B would have refused a short term accommodation offer given she had previously refused the guest house offer. But, Miss B should have been given the opportunity to decide whether to accept or refuse an offer of short term accommodation once the Council had decided her homelessness application. I find this is evidence of fault and Miss B suffered an injustice as a result.
- Within two weeks of the date of my final decision, the Council has agreed to:
- Make an offer of short term accommodation to Miss B for a period of time that will provide her a reasonable opportunity to find her own accommodation in line with the short term accommodation duty.
- The Council was not at fault for the matters Miss B complains about. But, the Council was at fault for not offering Miss B short term accommodation when it decided her homelessness application. The action the Council has agreed to take puts right the injustice suffered by Miss B. So, I have completed my investigation.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I have not investigated this complaint. Miss B had a statutory right of review against the Council’s decision. If the Council did not change its decision Miss B would have had a further right of appeal to the county court.
- I find it was reasonable for Miss B to use these review and appeal rights. Miss B says she would not have been able to afford the costs of taking the Council to court. But, the first step is to ask for a review of the Council’s decision. I do not consider Miss B was prevented from putting in a review request, notwithstanding her concerns about the Council’s review process. Also, because Miss B did not ask for a review, I cannot say it would have been unreasonable for her to have appealed to the county court if needed.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman