Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council (18 016 156)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 19 Aug 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms B complains about the Council’s handling of her request for housing help after she was made homeless. We find the Council’s decision to end the interim accommodation duty was affected by fault. This caused Ms B an injustice because it is possible she would have been accommodated for longer if the Council had acted without fault. To put right this injustice the Council has agreed to apologise and make a payment to Ms B. We have completed our investigation.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I will refer to as Ms B, complains about the Council’s handling of her request for housing help after she was made homeless. Specifically, Ms B complains the Council:
    • wrongly cancelled her interim accommodation on the basis she had missed a housing options appointment even though she went to the Council’s offices on the day to explain she was too unwell to attend the appointment;
    • did not provide any other accommodation for her apart from suggesting accommodation in Birmingham, which was unsuitable; and,
    • did not respond to the complaint made by her representative.
  2. Ms B says because of fault by the Council she was street homeless and extremely vulnerable due to her long term mental health problems.

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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. 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 have considered Ms B’s complaint and the supporting information she sent. I have made enquiries to the Council and have considered the information provided by the Council in response. I have also shared a draft version of this statement with Ms B and the Council, and have considered the comments I received in response.

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What I found

The law on homelessness

  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. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 came into force on 3 April 2018. This Act amended Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996.
  3. Someone is threatened with homelessness if, when asking for 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))
  4. Councils must complete an assessment if they are satisfied an applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness. The Code of Guidance says, rather than advise the applicant to return when homelessness is more imminent, the housing authority may wish to accept a prevention duty and begin to take reasonable steps to prevent 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 (PHP). (Housing Act 1996, section 189A and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraphs 11.6 and 11.18)
  5. If councils are satisfied applicants are threatened with homelessness and eligible for assistance, they must help them to secure that accommodation does not stop being available for their occupation. In deciding what steps they are to take, councils must have regard to their assessments of the applicants’ case. This is called the Prevention duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 195)
  6. Councils must take reasonable steps to secure accommodation for any eligible homeless person. This is called the Relief duty. The council is required to take reasonable steps to help the applicant secure suitable accommodation with a reasonable prospect that it will be available for their occupation for at least six months. The reasonable steps to be taken by both the council and the applicant to help secure accommodation must include those set out in the PHP, which should be reviewed once the Relief duty is accepted.
  7. When a council decides the Relief duty has come to an end, it must notify the applicant in writing. (Housing Act 1996, section 189B)
  8. A council may decide the Relief duty has come to an end when it has complied with the Relief duty and 56 days have passed since the duty was accepted.
  9. Assessments and PHPs must be kept under review throughout the Prevention and Relief stages, and any amendments notified to the applicant.
  10. 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)
  11. The version of the Homelessness Code of Guidance in force when the Council provided Ms B with interim accommodation says the following about Refusal or loss of interim accommodation:

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.

  1. If 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 (unless it refers the application to another housing authority under section 198). This is called the main housing duty. But councils will not owe the main housing duty to applicants who have turned down a suitable final accommodation offer or a Housing Act Part 6 offer made during the Relief stage, or if a council has given them notice under section 193B(2) due to their deliberate and unreasonable refusal to co-operate. (Housing Act 1996, section 193 and Homelessness Code of Guidance 15.39)

What happened

  1. Ms B has mental health needs and has been sectioned under the Mental Health Act twice. Until recently Ms B was a housing association tenant.
  2. In 2018 Ms B’s children were removed from her care because she was unable to cope due to her mental health problems. Because of this, Ms B says her mental health got even worse and she lost control of who came in and out of her property. Ms B says during this period she suffered abuse and during an incident of abuse she dropped a cigarette which caused a serious fire at the property.
  3. On 19 November 2018 Ms B approached the Council for housing help because her housing association property was no longer habitable. Ms B explained what happened at her housing association tenancy and said she had been the victim of domestic violence. Ms B said she did not need accommodation that night.
  4. The Council arranged an appointment for 20 November. Ms B attended the appointment and was interviewed by a Council officer. The Council says it discussed a Personalised housing plan with Ms B and accepted it owed Ms B the Relief duty. The Council also completed a referral form for a local charity which provides supported housing for people with mental health needs.
  5. The Council placed Ms B in interim accommodation at a hotel that day. The Council says the accommodation was only provided for around one week to allow Ms B to attend an interview at the charity, otherwise she would have been expected to attend hostel accommodation in Birmingham.
  6. The Council says it created and sent Ms B a Personalised housing plan on 26 November. The Council says on the same day the charity told it that Ms B was not engaging and had failed to attend her appointment or four subsequent interviews for supported housing. The Council arranged an appointment with Ms B for 27 November to extend the accommodation booking at the hotel.
  7. Ms B did not attend the appointment with the housing advisor on 27 November. So, the Council did not re-book the hotel accommodation which ended on 28 November.
  8. Ms B phoned the Council on 3 December and asked for accommodation. Ms B said she did not attend the appointment on 27 November because she ran away from a court hearing because she was scared. The Council’s notes say Ms B refused to tell the officer where she had been staying, before later telling an officer at the Council offices that she had been staying with friends and on the streets.
  9. The Council arranged a final appointment for Ms B with the charity for 7 December. The Council’s notes say that the officer warned Ms B that if she did not attend the appointment the duty to accommodate would end and the Council would not provide any further emergency accommodation. The Council then booked Ms B into hotel accommodation again from 3 December.
  10. On 4 December the Council sent a letter to Ms B saying it owed her the Relief duty. This was because the Council was satisfied Ms B was eligible for help and homeless. The Council told Ms B it had a duty to take reasonable steps to secure that suitable accommodation became available for her occupation.
  11. On 7 December Ms B attended the appointment with the charity and was booked into the hotel accommodation until 10 December.
  12. On 10 December Ms B had an appointment at the Council’s housing options office about the interim accommodation booking which had now ended. Ms B says:
    • she went to the office that morning and told them she was unwell and had to attend an emergency medical appointment.
    • the Council officer asked her to return at 3pm but she was not able to attend because of her medical appointment.
    • The officer told her not to come back after the appointment.
  13. The Council says:
    • Ms B arrived at the Council offices at 12pm.
    • the officer advised her to come back to the Council office after her doctor appointment at 2pm.
    • Ms B said she would go back to the Council office straight after her doctor appointment.
    • Ms B did not question this or raise any concern that she would have any problem doing this.
    • Ms B did not return to the Council office before the office closed at 5pm and did not get in contact. So, the Council did not extend the accommodation booking.
  14. The Council’s written record of the appointment says:

‘[Ms B] came into the office at 12:00 with her partner, advised needed to come back at 2:00pm. She told me that she had a doctors appointment and would come straight after. [Ms B] did not come back. Booking therefore not extended.’

  1. On 11 December the Council ended its interim accommodation duty to Ms B. The Council says it told Ms B this and wrote a letter for Ms B to collect. The Council said this was because Ms B had refused a suitable offer of accommodation.
  2. The Council said on two occasions Ms B had failed to attend an appointment to extend her stay at interim accommodation.
  3. Ms B says during this period she slept on the streets and in a tent in her mother’s garden.
  4. On 14 December Ms B’s representative phoned the Council to challenge the decision to stop providing Ms B with interim accommodation. Ms B’s representative says the officer was unwilling to negotiate and said it is Council policy to remove interim accommodation if appointments are missed.
  5. The Officer said a referral to a hostel for vulnerable adults in Birmingham was the only help that could be offered, because the only hostel in Newcastle had declined Ms B’s application, and all the hostels in Stoke were full.
  6. Ms B said if she went to the hostel in Birmingham she would need the Council to pay for transport so she could see her children. The Council said it could not do this but the accommodation would be a temporary arrangement while she was trying to find alternative accommodation in the Council’s area.
  7. Ms B says the hostel in Birmingham would not have been suitable. She has monthly supervised contact with her children who remain in care, and Ms B says she could not maintain this if staying in Birmingham. Also, Ms B says this would have separated her from her mother, community mental health worker and probation staff she is familiar with.
  8. On 17 December Ms B’s representative put in a complaint to the Council.
  9. On 21 December the Council partly completed a referral form to a supported housing provider which had vacancies. The Council also says it referred Ms B to a private sector officer to help her find a private rented one bedroom flat. The Council says it sent the referral form to Ms B’s probation officer on 24 December.
  10. On 7 January 2019 the Council updated Ms B’s personalised housing plan and sent a link to Ms B. The Council says Ms B had not accessed the Plan or undertaken any of the steps she agreed to take.
  11. The Council’s records show that on 8 January it made enquiries to landlords to find out if accommodation was available for Ms B. Also, the Council contacted Ms B’s probation officer about the supported housing referral form which had not been returned.
  12. On 16 January the Council responded to Ms B’s complaint. The letter was not received by Ms B’s representative until 12 February. The Council did not accept it was at fault for the way it handled Ms B’s request for housing help. With regard to the hostel in Birmingham, the Council said it is for vulnerable adults and residents can stay on a short term or long term basis. The Council said it was aware Ms B had access to her children once a month, and she could use the regular train and bus routes from Birmingham.
  13. Also in January, Ms B’s representative complained to us. Ms B had not completed the Council’s complaints procedure, but we accepted the complaint early. This was because Ms B was street homeless, so we did not consider it was reasonable to expect her to complete the Council’s complaints procedure before making her complaint to us.
  14. Since then the Council accepted it owed Ms B the main housing duty, after initially deciding on 5 February it did not owe Ms B the main housing duty because she was intentionally homeless.
  15. The Council provided Ms B with temporary accommodation in performance of this duty. Ms B accepted the Council’s offer.
  16. The Council’s response to my enquiries included the following comments:
    • The decision to end the interim accommodation was made because Ms B had been given several warnings about the importance of contacting the service to rebook accommodation.
    • The Council was confident Ms B was fully aware of the consequences of failing to engage as she had been advised both verbally and in writing. Ms B already had a break in accommodation where she failed to contact the Council and was given a further opportunity to engage.
    • The only hostel in the Council’s area which offers emergency accommodation for single customers is the charity. Several appointments were arranged for Ms B but she failed to attend. Unfortunately when Ms B did attend, the charity did not accept her.
    • The Council sent a referral form for a supported housing provider to the probation service but this was not completed or returned to the Council.
    • Due to the lack of emergency accommodation options available in the Council’s area it had no alternative but to consider a referral out of the area. The supported accommodation in Birmingham is an option the Council often uses and the Council can help with travel if needed.
    • The complaint response letter was placed into the post tray to send. It is recorded as saved on 16 January 2019.
  17. The Council has provided a copy of Ms B’s personalised housing plan. But, the plan is the current version. The plan has been amended since it was created in November 2018, but the Council does not have a record of the earlier versions. The Council said it recognised it would be helpful if each version of the plan could be saved onto the housing journal entry in future for auditing purposes.

Analysis

  1. I will now address each of Ms B’s complaints.

The Council wrongly cancelled Ms B’s interim accommodation on the basis she had missed a housing options appointment even though she went to the Council’s offices on the day to explain she was too unwell to attend the appointment

  1. The Council decided its duty to provide Ms B with interim accommodation had ended because Ms B had refused a suitable offer of accommodation at the hotel. This was because on two occasions Ms B had failed to attend an appointment to extend her stay at this interim accommodation.
  2. The code of guidance says a council may end the interim accommodation duty if an applicant rejects an offer of accommodation. So, the Council would have been entitled to end the interim accommodation duty if Ms B had refused the Council’s offers of accommodation.
  3. But, Ms B did not refuse the Council’s offers. Rather, the Council’s decision was because it considered Ms B did not attend two appointments, to extend accommodation bookings, without good reason. Ms B accepts she missed the first appointment, but she does not accept she missed the second appointment (on 10 December 2018).
  4. The Council’s written record of what happened supports the Council’s account. But, it is possible there was a misunderstanding on the day.
  5. However, even if Miss B missed both appointments, I do not consider the Council was entitled to end the interim accommodation duty on this basis.
  6. I recognise the Council considered Ms B was not engaging with its service or the charity it had referred her to. But, the Council should have done more - for example by making an offer of interim accommodation in writing - before deciding to end the duty.
  7. Also, even if the Council was entitled to end the duty because of Miss B’s failure to attend appointments, it should have written to Ms B to formally warn her about the consequences of missing appointments.
  8. The Council says it warned Ms B in writing, but I have not seen evidence to support this. Also, the Council’s verbal warning to Ms B - that it would end the interim accommodation duty - was in relation to Ms B’s appointment with the charity on 7 December, which she attended, rather than the Council appointment on 10 December.
  9. Also, the Council’s record of an earlier verbal warning before the 27 November appointment says the warning was made to an officer helping Ms B. Also, the note says the Council warned that the hotel accommodation would not be extended. This is not the same as saying the Council would also end its duty to provide interim accommodation. This is why it was so important for the Council to clearly tell Ms B in writing about the consequences of not attending appointments.
  10. Also, the Council could have contacted Ms B after the second missed appointment to find out why she did not attend before deciding to end the duty. The Council was aware Ms B had to attend a medical appointment that day and there may have been good reasons for her not coming back to the Council office. The Council did not give Ms B the opportunity to explain why she did not attend before the Council ended the interim accommodation duty. The Council was also aware of Ms B’s mental health problems and some difficult personal circumstances during this period.
  11. So, I find the Council’s decision to end the interim accommodation duty was affected by fault.
  12. I also find Ms B suffered a significant injustice because of the Council’s fault. Ms B says she was street homeless and also had to stay in a tent from the Council’s decision on 11 December 2018 until early February 2019 when the Council provided her with short term accommodation after deciding her homelessness application.
  13. I cannot say with confidence what would have happened had the Council not acted with fault. It is possible the Council may have decided at a later date to end the interim accommodation duty. For example, if Ms B continued to miss appointments after the Council had formally warned her about the consequences of missing appointments. Or, if the Council had made an offer of accommodation which Ms B did not accept.
  14. But, equally it is possible the Council would have provided Ms B with interim accommodation until the Council decided her homelessness application on 5 February 2019 (when the Council provided accommodation using different powers).
  15. I cannot say it is more likely than not that Ms B would not have become street homeless had there been no fault by the Council. But, I consider Ms B has suffered some distress and uncertainty because of the Council’s fault. I have asked the Council to apologise and make a payment to Ms B to put right this injustice.

The Council did not provide any other accommodation for Ms B apart from suggesting accommodation in Birmingham, which was unsuitable

  1. Once the Council decided the duty to provide interim accommodation had ended, it was not required to provide Ms B with accommodation. I recognise Ms B did not consider the hostel accommodation in Birmingham was suitable. But, the Council was not required to provide accommodation and the evidence suggests the Council was trying to help Ms B by suggesting accommodation options. So, the Council was not at fault for suggesting the accommodation in Birmingham. However, as I have already explained, my view is the Council’s decision to end the interim accommodation duty was affected by fault.

The Council did not respond to the complaint made by her representative on 17 December 2018

  1. The Council responded to this complaint on 16 January 2019. It is not clear why the Council’s letter was not received by Ms B’s representative until 12 February. It is possible the Council did not send the letter. But, also it is possible the letter was not correctly delivered. I cannot say it is more likely than not the delay was the result of fault by the Council.

Other matters

  1. I have also considered whether the Council met its homelessness duties, as amended by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.
  2. I find the Council met its homelessness duties to Ms B. The Council promptly interviewed Ms B and arranged accommodation for her when she presented as homeless. There was a slight delay before the Council sent the personalised housing plan to Ms B and a letter saying it accepted the Relief duty. But, I do not consider this delay was significant.
  3. The Relief duty meant the Council was required to take reasonable steps to help Ms B secure suitable accommodation with a reasonable prospect that it would be available for occupation for at least six months. The evidence strongly suggests the Council met this duty by trying to find Ms B alternative accommodation. The Council’s records show that it liaised with various professionals who were working with Ms B and considered different options for finding accommodation.
  4. However, the Council has only provided the latest version of the personalised housing plan. The Council’s system does not keep earlier versions of the plan. I note the Council identified this as a learning point when it responded to my enquiries and I would encourage the Council to make sure all versions of the personalised housing plan are saved in future.

Agreed action

  1. To put right the injustice suffered by Ms B because of the fault I have identified, I recommend that within two months of the date of my final decision, the Council:
    • Writes and sends an apology to Ms B; and,
    • Pays Ms B £300 for the distress and uncertainty she suffered because of the Council’s decision to end the interim accommodation duty.
  2. The Council has agreed to my recommendations.

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Final decision

  1. The Council was at fault for some of the matters complained about. The Council has agreed to take action to put right the injustice suffered by Ms B. I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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