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Birmingham City Council (18 019 586)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 23 Dec 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There was fault in the way the Council dealt with Mr A’s belongings when he was homeless. This caused him a financial loss. To remedy the injustice the Council will apologise, pay him £500 and establish written procedures for officers on the protection of homeless applicants’ property.

The complaint

  1. Mr A complains Birmingham City Council (the Council) changed the locks to his temporary accommodation and disposed of his belongings without telling him. He wants the Council to compensate him for the lost belongings.

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What I have investigated

  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 considered Mr A’s complaint, the Council’s response to his complaint and documents described later in this statement. The parties received a draft of this statement and I took comments into account.

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What I found

Relevant law

  1. Where a council has reason to believe there is a danger of loss of or damage to any personal property of a homeless applicant because he cannot protect or deal with it and no other suitable arrangements are in place, then it should take reasonable steps to prevent the loss or damage of it. (Housing Act 1996, section 211)
  2. Where a council ceases to be under a duty or power to prevent loss or damage to property, it should notify the applicant in writing and say why. It should send the notification to the applicant at his last known address or give it to him in person. (Housing Act 1996, section 212((4) and (5))

What happened

  1. The Council provided Mr A and his family with temporary accommodation (a flat) in 2015 as they were homeless. The signed licence agreement says:
    • “you must use the accommodation as your main home.  If you are absent for more than two nights in a row or more than two nights in any week without our prior knowledge, we may end the occupancy agreement in your absence and remove your belongings from the accommodation”.
    • “the Council can end this agreement for any reason....the Council will provide reasonable notice to you..”
    • “you must allow representatives of the Council reasonable access to ensure the good maintenance of the property”
  2. The gas service team needed to inspect the flat to carry out safety checks. The Council told me the gas contractors made three visits to the flat in November 2017 and left missed appointment cards on each occasion. The Council told me the contractor left a letter on the last visit saying they would force entry and giving contact details for Mr A to get in touch to arrange an appointment to avoid forced entry.
  3. The Council’s contact notes indicate two officers went to Mr A’s flat on 21 November 2017 for a welfare check and there was no answer. They left a card.
  4. On 8 February 2018, an officer spoke to Mr A and he confirmed he still lived in the flat.
  5. On 27 March 2018, the gas team forced entry into the flat and changed the locks. I have seen a photo of a notice attached to the front door of the flat. The notice said the gas team had forced entry and Mr A should contact the office for new keys. The Council’s records of the inspection of the property and photos indicate there was a TV, TV stand, bag of clothes and some photos left in the flat.
  6. I asked the Council what telephone numbers it had on record for Mr A. It gave me two mobile numbers, one for Mr A and one for his wife. I asked the Council if the gas team or the contractor phoned Mr A at any point in the process. The Council said “the tenants are contacted via the contractor and when time allows the Gas Service Team, however the process is designed for the tenant to take some of the responsibility to contact the Contractors or the Gas Service Team to confirm appointments.”
  7. Mr A did not respond to the notice. He told me he was abroad with his wife who was receiving medical treatment. There is no evidence in the Council’s contact notes that Mr A told the Council he was going abroad and was not going to be living in the flat. The Council cleared the flat and did repairs. Photos of the flat and the case records indicate belongings left in the flat were a TV, a holdall of clothes, a small TV stand and some photos.
  8. Mr A complained to the Council when he returned to the UK in June 2018. He said he had been out of the country with his wife from the end of February 2018. He said his adult son had been living at the property and returned home one night to find the locks changed.
  9. The Council did not uphold the complaint. It said Mr A failed to tell the Council he was not staying at the property and so it changed the locks and stored his possessions for 28 days and then disposed of them.
  10. I asked the Council if it had served a section 212 notice (see paragraph six). It did not. The Council also told me it had no policy for the protection of property of homeless people. It told me it disposed of Mr A’s belongings after storing them for 28 days.

Was there fault?

  1. There is no evidence any council officer tried to phone Mr A or his partner to find out where they were in November 2017 after officers visited for a welfare check, or when Mr A failed to respond to calling cards left by the gas team. This was fault. The Council should have tried to phone Mr A and his partner because it needed to get into his flat for gas checks and it did not know following the welfare check, whether the family were well or not.
  2. The Council did not serve notification under section 212 of the Housing Act 1996 that it intended to stop storing Mr A’s goods. It could have done so by writing to Mr A. There was also an email address for him. Or it could have phoned Mr A for an address to serve notification. The failure to serve notification that the Council was ending storage was not in line with the law and was fault.
  3. The Council told me it has no written procedures for protection of property of homeless applicants. This means there is a lack of clarity on what officers are required to do as shown by the lack of notification under section 212 in this case. The failure to have in place procedures so that officers know what to do is fault.

Did the fault cause injustice?

  1. I have taken into account that Mr A did not tell the Council he and the family were not living at the flat and he should have done so as this was a term of the licence agreement. I do not believe Mr A’s claim that his son was staying in the flat. If the son had been living there, he would have seen the notice on the front door and known to contact the office to get the keys.
  2. Mr A could have avoided losing his belongings had he told the Council what he was doing. However, the Council did not try to contact him by phone either. There was fault on both sides. Had the Council phoned Mr A to notify him of its intention to stop storing his belongings, which it should have, it is likely he would have asked it to continue with storage. This would have avoided their loss.

Agreed action

  1. The Council will, within one month:
    • Apologise to Mr A
    • Pay him £500 to reflect the value of his lost belongings
  2. Within three months, the Council will write and implement policies and procedures for the protection and storage of belongings of homeless applicants

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Final decision

  1. There was fault in the way the Council dealt with Mr A’s belongings when he was homeless. This caused him a financial loss. To remedy the injustice it will apologise, pay him £500 and establish written procedures for officers on the protection of homeless applicants’ property.
  2. I have completed my investigation

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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