The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: the Council wrongly treated Mrs B’s family as two separate households when they presented as homeless, failed to take a homeless application for six months and failed to provide interim accommodation for six months. That meant the family were separated and had to spend time sofa surfing. An apology, payment to Mrs B and her daughter and a training session for officers is satisfactory remedy for the injustice caused.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mrs B, complained about the way the Council dealt with her when she presented as homeless. Mrs B complained the Council:
- unreasonably treated her family as separate households when they presented as homeless;
- failed to take a homeless application from her in February 2018;
- failed to respond to her further contacts between February and August 2018;
- failed to provide her or her son with accommodation in February 2018;
- delayed processing her homeless application taken in August 2018;
- kept her and her husband in unsuitable hotel accommodation despite saying it would move them after six weeks; and
- failed to offer any help in response to her request for more suitable accommodation to allow her to care for her son following his operation.
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)
- 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
- As part of the investigation, I have:
- considered the complaint and Mrs B's comments;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided;
- considered Mrs B’s comments on my draft decisions and the documentary evidence she provided; and
- considered the Council’s comments on my draft decisions.
What I found
Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities 2006
- Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 (the 1996 Act) provides the statutory underpinning for the strategy to tackle homelessness.
- Under section184 of the 1996 Act, if a housing authority has reason to believe a person applying to the authority for accommodation or assistance in obtaining accommodation may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, the authority must make such inquiries as are necessary to satisfy itself whether the applicant is eligible for assistance and if so, whether any duty, and if so what duty, is owed to that person under Part 7 of the 1996 Act.
- If a housing authority has reason to believe an applicant may be eligible for assistance, homeless and have a priority need, the authority will have an immediate duty under section 188 to ensure suitable accommodation is available for the applicant (and his or her household) pending the completion of the authority’s inquiries and its decision as to what duty, if any, is owed to the applicant under Part 7 of the Act. Authorities are reminded ‘having reason to believe’ is a lower test than ‘being satisfied’.
- When a housing authority has completed its inquiries under s.184 it must notify the applicant in writing of its decision on the case. Where the decision is against the applicant’s interests, e.g. a decision that he or she is ineligible for assistance, not homeless, not in priority need or homeless intentionally, the notification must explain clearly and fully the reasons for the decision.
- Section 188(1) imposes an interim duty on housing authorities to secure accommodation is available for an applicant (and his or her household) pending their decision as to what duty, if any, is owed to the applicant under Part 7 of the Act if they have reason to believe that the applicant may:
- a) be homeless,
- b) be eligible for assistance, and
- c) have a priority need.
- i) any other person who normally resides with him or her as a member of the family, or
- ii) any other person who might reasonably be expected to reside with him or her.
- (a)by securing that suitable accommodation provided by them is available for the applicant (s.206(1)(a));
- (b)by securing that the applicant obtains suitable accommodation from some other person (s.206(1)(b)); or
- (c)by giving the applicant such advice and assistance as will secure that suitable accommodation is available from some other person (s.206(1)(c)).
Chronology of the main events
- Until February 2018 Mrs B had been living in owner occupied accommodation with her husband, daughter, her two grandchildren and her son. Mrs B’s daughter and her grandchildren had lived with Mrs B since 2015. Mrs B’s daughter does not have leave to remain and has no recourse to public funds. She is therefore dependent on Mrs B. In February 2018 Mrs B’s home was repossessed and she and her daughter went to the Council to register as homeless. Mrs B’s son did not attend and is not referred to in the paperwork for the visit.
- At the interview at the Council’s offices on 12 February 2018 Mrs B told the Council her husband had diabetes and high blood pressure. Mrs B told the Council her daughter and grandchildren had previously lived with her for 10 years before moving to their own property and had lived with her for the last three years. Mrs B told the Council her daughter only had a holiday visa and had filed documents to the Home Office to get leave to remain. Mrs B told the Council nobody received benefits for the children. The Council told Mrs B it did not consider her daughter and grandchildren part of her household as they had lived away from her for more than eight years. The Council told Mrs B her daughter could make an application in her own right with her children. Mrs B did not complete a homeless application form as she did not consider there any point doing that if the Council would not accommodate everyone.
- Mrs B contacted the Council on 20 April. Mrs B told the Council officer she spoke to she had stayed with friends wherever possible but now needed accommodation. The Council’s officer told Mrs B her caseworker was on leave and provided Mrs B with contact details for her to telephone the caseworker the following week.
- Mrs B telephoned the Council again on 25 April. Mrs B asked for clarification on why the Council would not include her daughter and grandchildren in her application. Mrs B also emailed the Council. In that email Mrs B told the Council her granddaughter was on dialysis which she helped her daughter with. The Council emailed Mrs B later that day to tell her an officer would arrange to interview her.
- On 26 April Mrs B asked the Council what was happening with her application. The Council told Mrs B it would arrange an appointment. The Council assigned Mrs B a caseworker later that day.
- Mrs B chased the Council on 2 May. The Council said it would ask the caseworker to contact her.
- Mrs B chased the Council again on 10 May and referred to the situation as urgent. The Council officer that dealt with Mrs B told her the details would be passed onto her caseworker.
- A Council officer spoke to Mrs B on 11 May. Mrs B said she had no serious medical conditions although she had type 2 diabetes and a hand injury. The officer Mrs B spoke to told her the Council would not consider her in priority need and the officer would telephone her later that day to discuss options for private renting. The Council officer tried to telephone Mrs B later that day but could not make contact.
- On 15 May Mrs B telephoned the Council. Mrs B told the Council she and her husband had stayed with friends. Mrs B said she was living with her daughter and grandchildren when her property was repossessed. Mrs B said the family needed to live together as she provided care for her grandchild. Mrs B told the Council social services had provided emergency accommodation for her daughter and grandchildren. Mrs B told the Council she and her husband had type 2 diabetes and Mrs B had a damaged hand.
- The Council officer Mrs B spoke to told her she could not include her daughter and grandchildren in her application as they were separate households. The Council officer told Mrs B she and her husband would not have priority need due to diabetes or her damaged hand. The Council officer agreed to send her a housing options form to complete and said the Council would interview her after that and would likely make a non-priority decision based on the information she had provided. The Council told Mrs B private renting was the only option because the Council would not provide accommodation.
- Mrs B returned the completed housing options form to the Council on 24 May. Mrs B told the Council she was staying with various friends and desperately needed housing. The Council told Mrs B it would invite her for an appointment but she would be non-priority. The Council suggested she make an application for sheltered accommodation.
- On 11 June the Council’s social services department emailed the housing department about Mrs B’s daughter and her children, one of which was due to have a kidney transplant. Social services asked housing to assess the family as a whole as the granddaughter was about to undergo a risky procedure and needed full support for her recovery. Social services said she needed to live with her family in stable accommodation. The housing department told social services based on the information provided it could not help as the family had not lived with Mrs B. In response social services pointed out Mrs B’s daughter, grandchildren and son had lived with her until February 2018 when they were evicted. Social services said Mrs B’s daughter was financially dependent on her parents and asked housing to review its decision.
- The housing department responded on 18 June. It said the family had a history of living separately and therefore it would treat them as separate households. The housing department also contacted Mrs B. It told her although her daughter could make her own housing application she would not be eligible as she had no recourse to public funds. The Council told Mrs B the information she needed to provide for her housing application. The Council told her if she did not provide the information within seven days the Council would make a decision. The Council again told Mrs B she was not in priority need.
- On 19 June the Council’s social services department told the housing department its provision of accommodation to Mrs B’s daughter and grandchildren would end on 27 June. Social services pointed out the Children Act 1989 said a child is best placed with their birth family and all efforts should be made to ensure that happens wherever possible. Social services said Mrs B’s daughter could not provide accommodation for her children due to the no recourse to public funds restriction. Social services pointed out Mrs B could provide accommodation for the children as she previously had done. Social services reiterated for the previous three years the family had lived together. Social services asked the housing department for details of the housing legislation it was relying on when treating the family as separate units. There is no evidence the housing department provided a response.
- On 19 June the Council received a housing support letter from Mrs B’s GP.
- Mrs B chased the Council for progress with her interview on 28 June. Mrs B said she and her husband were sofa surfing.
- Mrs B chased the Council for an interview date again on 16 July and told it she and her husband were still sofa surfing.
- On 2 August the Council interviewed Mrs B. The Council provided interim accommodation from this date in a hostel.
- Between August and December 2018 Mrs B provided medical information for herself and her husband. Mrs B then chased the Council for an update on 18 December. The Council told Mrs B it had referred the medical evidence to a medical professional for advice. The Council received that medical advice on 20 December. The advice did not recommend priority on medical grounds.
- In March 2019 Mrs B’s support worker emailed the Council to say Mrs B needed some accommodation where her son could stay temporarily due to an operation planned for 19 March. The Council received that email but did not respond to it.
- Mrs B’s daughter and grandchildren are housed by social services. Mrs B remains in interim accommodation in a different area with her husband. The Council has not issued a decision on Mrs B’s homeless application. The Council says that is because it considered it preferable to relieve Mrs B’s homelessness rather than make a potentially negative decision. As Mrs B’s daughter and grandchildren are now settled in their own accommodation Mrs B is no longer seeking accommodation for the family as one household. The Council is considering though whether it can offer Mrs B alternative temporary accommodation closer to her daughter while her granddaughter recovers from an operation.
- I am concerned about the Council’s decision to treat the family as separate households when they presented to the Council in February 2018. The Council says it took that view because Mrs B’s daughter and grandchildren had lived away from the family and had returned to live with them only recently. However, the documentary evidence shows Mrs B told the Council on that first visit her daughter and grandchildren had lived with her for the previous three years. I do not consider that ‘relatively recently’ as the Council suggests. Mrs B also told the Council her daughter only had a holiday visa to visit the country which meant she had no recourse to public funds and was dependent on Mrs B. As I am satisfied the Council had that information at the first interview I am concerned the Council nevertheless told the family it would treat them as separate households. I consider it perverse for the Council to say the households were separate when they had been living together for three years. It is unsurprising in those circumstances Mrs B chose to leave the Council’s offices with her family to try and sort out some accommodation for them given she would have known her daughter would not be entitled to accommodation. Failure to recognise the family were one household in February 2018 is fault. Due to that fault the family are now separated.
- I do not, however, criticise the Council for failing to treat Mrs B’s son as part of her household. Mrs B’s son did not attend the visit in February 2018 and the record of the visit does not mention any discussion about Mrs B’s son or his circumstances.
- I consider the Council had an opportunity to put right its failure to recognise Mrs B’s daughter and grandchildren were part of her household in June 2018. That is when the Council’s social services department contacted the housing department. Social services asked the housing department to assess the family as one unit and again pointed out Mrs B’s daughter and grandchildren had lived with her until February 2018. Social services also made clear Mrs B’s daughter was financially dependent on her as she did not have any recourse to public funds. In those circumstances I am concerned the Council did not revisit the decision to treat the family as separate household. Had it done so I consider it likely the Council would have recognised the family were one household, taken a homeless application and housed them at that point.
- I am also concerned about the Council’s failure to arrange an appointment to take a homeless application between April and August when Mrs B was chasing the Council and made clear she was sofa surfing. That is fault. I consider failure to take a homeless application delayed provision of interim accommodation between February 2018 and August 2018. This meant Mrs B had to arrange to stay with various friends and, at times, sleep in her car. As I said earlier, the Council should also have treated the family as one unit. If it had done so it would also likely have provided accommodation to Mrs B, her husband, daughter and grandchildren rather than seeing them separated.
- In reaching that view I note the Council says Mrs B refused to complete the housing options form in February 2018. The Council points to that as not giving it an opportunity to fully consider the case or consider providing accommodation. However, the decision not to complete a housing options form is directly related to the Council’s wrong decision to treat the family as separate households. If the Council had acted as it should have done and treated the family as one unit it is likely, on the balance of probability, Mrs B would have completed a homeless application in February 2018. I also consider it likely the Council would then have provided interim accommodation. It is that failure which led to a delay of almost six months in taking a homeless application and providing accommodation to Mrs B. I note though for Mrs B’s daughter and grandchildren, social services stepped in and provided accommodation from May 2018, which I welcome. The fact remains though if the Council had dealt with the case properly in February 2018 it is unlikely the family would have been split and moved to different areas. I consider that a serious injustice, particularly as during that six month period Mrs B’s granddaughter had a kidney transplant.
- In addition to that, I am concerned during various telephone conversations with Mrs B between April and August 2018 the Council repeatedly told her it did not consider she had a priority need. That is despite the fact the Council had not made any enquiries into Mrs B’s circumstances. As I also said earlier, it had not included in that informal assessment Mrs B’s daughter and grandchildren who were part of her household.
- I understand the Council has still not reached a decision on Mrs B’s homeless application. As I say in paragraph 11, the recommendation is for councils to make decisions on homeless applications within 33 working days. Clearly the Council has not met that timescale. In this case though it appears the Council has deliberately decided not to do that as it recognises it may make a potentially negative decision either on priority need or intentionality. So, the Council has decided instead to relieve Mrs B’s homelessness and seek to identify a property for Mrs B. I consider that a particularly helpful offer, although I appreciate that means Mrs B could not appeal any negative decision. In those circumstances I do not recommend the Council issue a formal decision on the homeless application as that may potentially affect the accommodation the Council is providing to Mrs B.
- Mrs B says the Council placed her in unsuitable hostel accommodation despite saying it would move her after six weeks. Having considered the documentary evidence I have found nothing to suggest the Council told Mrs B she would only have to stay in the accommodation for six weeks. The Council’s temporary accommodation placement policy also makes clear it usually offers hostel accommodation. I am satisfied the Council is seeking to move Mrs B on from hostel accommodation but is finding difficulty doing that due to the lack of suitable properties. That is not fault.
- Mrs B says the Council failed to offer any help when she asked for accommodation where she could care for her son following an operation. The Council accepts it failed to respond to that email. Failure to deal with that is fault. What I have to consider is what the outcome would have been had the Council considered the email. I consider it likely the Council would have offered Mrs B alternative temporary accommodation to include her daughter, granddaughter and son had the Council dealt with the email in March 2019. I reach that conclusion because when the Ombudsman made the Council aware of the March 2019 email it offered Mrs B four-bedroom accommodation to incorporate her family. I do not consider it likely though, on the balance of probability, Mrs B would have accepted that offer or any accommodation provided with the intention of her son living with her permanently. That is because, as I said earlier, Mrs B had made clear her daughter and son were settled in their own accommodation by that point. I therefore consider it unlikely Mrs B would have accepted anything other than further temporary accommodation for her and her husband which would have allowed her son to stay with her temporarily. I therefore consider Mrs B’s injustice is limited to her uncertainty about whether the Council could have provided such accommodation on a short-term basis.
- Within one month of my decision the Council should:
- apologise to Mrs B, her daughter and her son;
- pay Mrs B £2,000 to reflect the fact she had to sofa surf and sleep in her car between February 2018 and August 2018 and has now spent more than a year separated from other members of her household;
- pay Mrs B’s daughter £1,000 to reflect the fact she had to stay with friends between February 2018 and May 2018 and has now spent more than a year separated from other members of her household; and
- carry out a training session for officers working with homeless applicants to cover when a homeless application should be taken, how to assess priority need and how to decide who is a member of an applicant’s household.
- I have completed my investigation and uphold the complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman