The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: there was no fault in the way the Council assisted Mr X when he became homeless.
- Mr X complains that the Council did not give him adequate housing advice and assistance after he became homeless following the breakdown of his relationship. In particular, it did not arrange interim accommodation because it did not consider he is in priority need. Mr X has been sleeping in his car.
- Mr X says he gave the Council evidence from his GP and the hospital confirming he has a significant physical disability and is in severe and constant pain. He says the hospital cancelled a planned operation because the Council did not arrange suitable accommodation where he could recover following surgery.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), 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 all the information he sent me. I considered the Council’s response to my enquiries and evidence from its records.
- I gave Mr X and the Council an opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
What I found
- Mr X used to live with his partner and their two young children in private rented accommodation in the borough. Mr X and his partner were joint tenants.
- In 2016 Mr X had a fall at work and injured his back, neck and knee. Since then he has not been able to work and claims disability benefits. Mr X uses a walking stick but manages to wash and dress independently. He has been diagnosed with a chronic pain syndrome resulting from his injuries. He has received some psychological counselling and support to help him cope with low mood and feelings of anxiety.
- Mr X left the family home in October 2018 following the breakdown of the relationship with his partner. The children remained with his partner.
- Mr X initially signed a voluntary agreement to leave the family home following a safeguarding referral to Children’s Services. In November 2018 his ex-partner obtained an emergency Court order to prevent Mr X returning to the property or having contact with her or the children. Mr X is involved in legal proceedings to contest the Order.
- Since leaving the former family home in October, Mr X has been sleeping in his car in different locations. He wants to stay in the Hillingdon area for continuity of medical care and to be near his children and other family members.
The Council’s duties to prevent and relieve homelessness
- If a Council has reason to believe an applicant may be homeless, it must make any inquiries necessary to satisfy itself what duty it owes to the applicant. (Housing Act 1996, section 184)
- If an applicant is eligible for assistance and homeless or threatened with homelessness, councils must complete a housing assessment and draw up a personalised housing plan. Councils must notify the applicant of the outcome of the assessment. They should work with the applicant 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 individual applicant, 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 a council is satisfied an applicant is homeless, it is subject to the ‘relief duty’. This duty lasts until the applicant:
- finds suitable accommodation that is available for at least six months; or
- refuses suitable accommodation; or
- becomes intentionally homeless from any accommodation that was made available;
- is no longer eligible for assistance; or
- withdraws the application.
The duty also ends if at least 56 days have passed (even if the applicant is still homeless).
- During the relief duty period, the Council should try to relieve the applicant’s homelessness. However, this does not mean it is under a duty to actually secure accommodation for the person. (Housing Act 1996 as amended by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, section 189B(2))
- If the Council is satisfied an applicant is homeless, and the relief duty has ended for one of the reasons above, it must then consider whether the applicant is in priority need, whether the applicant became homeless intentionally and the circumstances in which the relief duty ended. If an adverse decision is made on any of those issues, it must give the applicant a written decision with reasons.
- If a council has reason to believe an applicant may be homeless, eligible for assistance and in priority need, it must provide interim accommodation to the applicant during the relief period. (Housing Act 1996, section 188)
- Homeless applicants in priority need include:
- people with dependent children who live with them;
- pregnant women;
- people who are considered to be significantly more vulnerable (due to old age, physical or mental illness or disability, or some other special reason) than an ordinary person if made homeless.
- what duty (if any) is owed to them if they are found to be homeless or threatened with homelessness;
- the steps they are required to take in their Personalised Housing Plan at the prevention duty stage or the relief duty stage;
- the notice given by the Council to bring the prevention or relief duty to an end.
The statutory review procedure cannot be used to challenge a decision not to provide interim accommodation.
Mr X’s request for housing assistance
- Mr X first contacted the Council on 25 October. He told the officer who carried out the initial assessment that he had been sleeping in his car for the past five nights.
- A Housing Options Officer (Officer A) telephoned Mr X on 26 October to invite him to an interview later that day. Mr X could not make it but said he would attend on 29 October (the next working day). Mr X was delayed on his way to the Council’s office on 29 October so the appointment was rearranged.
- Officer A interviewed Mr X on 30 October and she completed a housing assessment. She also started to prepare a Personalised Housing Plan.
- Mr X told Officer A he was due to have surgery at a central London hospital on 19 November. It required a residential stay for two weeks. He also told her about the accident that had left him with a permanent disability and chronic pain. He gave details of the disability benefits he received and said he was pursuing a legal claim for compensation for his work-related injury.
- Officer A noted Mr X had a legal right to occupy the former family home because he and his partner were joint tenants. She contacted the Council’s Children’s Services on the same day to find out more about the circumstances that led Mr X to leave the family home.
- Officer A also considered whether Mr X may be in priority need. He had dependent children but they were living with his ex-partner. She noted his health issues. After the interview, she sent an email to the Council’s external medical advisers to ask for an opinion about whether Mr X was in priority need.
- The Medical Adviser replied on 31 October. He noted Mr X’s disabilities and that he was independently mobile with a walking aid. He added:
“I make no housing recommendations on specific medical grounds. Housing needs: first floor max or lifted”.
- On 1 November Officer A called Mr X to tell him the outcome of the referral to the Medical Adviser. She said she would continue to work with him to try to find private rented accommodation. She also made a referral to an organisation that works with rough sleepers after establishing where Mr X would be staying that night.
- Officer A arranged an appointment for Mr X with an organisation that offers shared accommodation for single people.
- The Personalised Housing Plan set out the steps the Council would take:
- advise Mr X on the maximum Local Housing Allowance rates and the areas where he could afford to pay rent;
- refer Mr X to an organisation that provides shared accommodation for single people with no dependent children;
- give Mr X advice and information about how to find private rented sector accommodation;
- explain how he could apply for a Discretionary Housing Payment to help pay a deposit, rent in advance or to top up Housing Benefit.
- to provide supporting documents (not specified);
- to tell Officer A the outcome of a Court hearing relating to the Order on 23 November 2018;
- to provide evidence of his admission to hospital for two weeks from 19 November.
Events following Mr X’s complaint to us
- On 16 November Officer B took over responsibility for Mr X’s case. She emailed Mr X a copy of his Personalised Housing Plan and a homelessness decision letter. The letter said the Council accepted he was homeless and eligible for assistance as a British national. It explained the Council owed him the “relief duty” and it had to take reasonable steps to help him secure accommodation. It explained it would offer him advice and provide a rent deposit or bond where possible. It also explained the circumstances in which the relief duty would come to an end and his right to request a review of the decision.
- The letter explained the Council had considered whether to provide Mr X with interim accommodation. But it did not have reason to believe he was in priority need and so it did not have to secure accommodation for him during the 56 day relief period.
- On 16 November Officer B asked the Council’s external medical adviser to consider medical evidence Mr X had submitted and advise whether he was vulnerable on medical or psychological grounds. She sent the medical adviser five letters including a report from the clinical psychologist and a physiotherapist who had been treating Mr X. The letters included details of Mr X’s planned admission to hospital on 19 November for a residential pain management programme.
- Officer B contacted the pain management team at the hospital on 16 November to find out more about Mr X’s planned admission. The hospital did not know Mr X was homeless until Officer B told them. The hospital said that would not prevent him being admitted for the residential assessment because the focus of this programme was pain management and preparation for surgery at a later date.
- Three days later, after the hospital spoke to Mr X, it contacted Officer B to say it had decided to postpone Mr X’s admission for the two week assessment until his housing situation was “less chaotic”. It said it was unlikely doctors would agree to fit a device to manage pain while Mr X was sleeping in his car.
- Mr X considers the Council is directly responsible for the cancellation of his hospital assessment. He says it could not proceed because he had nowhere suitable to recover after surgery.
- On 19 November a different external Medical Adviser considered the medical evidence and sent a written note to Officer B. She considered information about his appointment for the assessment and four letters from medical professionals. She summarised Mr X’s medical conditions and the impact this had on his daily life. She concluded:
“I don’t think the specific medical issues in this case are of particular significance compared to an ordinary person”.
- On 23 November Mr X requested a review of the decision and asked for interim accommodation pending the outcome of the review.
- On 26 November a senior officer replied to Mr X’s request. He said the only decision the Council had made so far was that he was homeless, eligible for assistance and owed the 56 day relief duty. He had no right to request a review of the Council’s decision not to provide interim accommodation. He told Mr X that decision could only be challenged by judicial review.
- On 26 November Officer B telephoned Mr X to carry out the planned review of his Personalised Housing Plan. Mr X said he had instructed a solicitor and had complained to the Ombudsman. He expressed concern that a third party (the Council’s external medical adviser) had made the decision that he was not in priority need. He asked for a review of that decision. He said it was impossible to find private rented accommodation in the borough because most letting agents do not consider people who claimed Housing Benefit. Officer B asked if Mr X wanted her to make a referral to the organisation that provides shared accommodation. Mr X said his GP had stated he could not be housed in shared accommodation due to the risk of infection following his spinal operation. Officer B said the surgery had been postponed so this did not prevent Mr X considering this housing option now.
- On 29 November Officer B left Mr X a message about viewing a studio flat in a town outside London. The property was within the Local Housing Allowance limit. Mr X called back to say he would not view the property because it was not in the borough. He said his doctor said he must stay in the local area to be close to his family support network and medical services. The Council says it has not seen any evidence stating that Mr X has an essential need to be accommodated in Hillingdon. None of the medical evidence I have seen says Mr X must be accommodated in the borough.
- Mr X was invited to meet Officer B on 14 December to review progress with the steps agreed in his Personal Housing Plan. He decided not to attend.
- The Council will notify Mr X in writing of its decision on priority need and intentional homelessness when the relief duty ends.
- There is no duty for a council to provide interim accommodation for every homeless applicant. It must only arrange accommodation if it has reason to believe the person may be homeless and in priority need. For a single applicant who does not fit any other priority need category, the Council will consider if he or she is significantly more vulnerable than an ordinary person when homeless due to a medical condition, disability or some other special reason.
- It is not in dispute that Mr X has a diagnosed physical disability. The key issue is whether that disability makes him significantly more vulnerable than an ordinary person who is homeless. The Council had to make that decision after taking account of the medical evidence Mr X provided and advice from its medical advisers. Mr X disagrees with the Council’s decision not to provide interim accommodation. He believes he submitted compelling medical evidence that demonstrates he is vulnerable because of his physical disability and mental health issues.
- We must consider if there was fault in the process the Council followed when it reached this decision. We are not an appeal body and we cannot overturn a decision that was properly made because Mr X disagrees with it.
- The Council took advice from its Medical Adviser on two occasions. It is clear from the records I have seen that on the second referral the Medical Adviser considered all the medical evidence from the hospital doctors and Mr X’s GP. The role of the Medical Adviser is to give an opinion on vulnerability and the housing officer must then make the decision. Mr X disagrees with the outcome. But as I found no fault in the decision-making process, I cannot question the merits of the decision.
- The Council had to consider whether to arrange interim accommodation for Mr X during the relief duty stage. But it will not make a formal decision on whether Mr X is in priority need until the relief duty ends. At that point, it will write to inform Mr X of its decision on priority need, intentional homelessness and whether it owes him any other duty. Mr X will then have the right to use the statutory review procedure to challenge any adverse decisions that may be made at this stage.
- I considered Mr X’s complaint that the Council’s actions caused the hospital to cancel his planned admission. According to the notes Officer B made on 16 November, the hospital was willing to proceed with the residential assessment even when Officer B informed them Mr X was homeless. The planned admission on 19 November was for a pre-surgery assessment and not an operation. A few days later, after speaking to Mr X, the hospital decided not to proceed with the assessment. It considered Mr X could not focus on this while his housing situation was unresolved. I do not consider the Council was at fault. The Council would have reviewed its position when Mr X had a confirmed date for surgery.
- I have completed the investigation and found no evidence of fault by the Council.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman