The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B says the Council wrongly removed him from the housing register, refused to accept his request for a review of that decision, failed to deal with his homeless applications properly and failed to follow its complaints policy. There is no fault in how the Council dealt with Mr B’s housing register application. The Council failed to deal with Mr B’s homeless applications properly and failed to act appropriately when dealing with his complaint. An apology, payment to Mr B and training for officers is satisfactory remedy.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr B, complained the Council:
- wrongly removed him from the housing register in 2017 when it knew he was homeless and failed to tell him about that decision until 2019;
- failed to take a homeless application from him in 2017;
- unreasonably refused to accept his request for a review of the housing register decision on time grounds when he did not find out about his removal from the housing register until 2019;
- failed to take a homeless application or provide him with temporary accommodation at any point during 2019, despite knowing he was homeless and potentially in priority need; and
- failed to follow its complaints policy when refusing to take the complaint to stage two.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated those parts of the complaint which relate to events from 2019 onwards in relation to the homeless application as well as the complaint about removing Mr B from the housing register in 2017. The final section of this statement contains my reason for not investigating the rest of the complaint.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a Council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
- 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. The Ombudsman cannot question whether a Council’s decision is right or wrong simply because Mr B disagrees with it. He must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1), 26A(1), as amended and 34(3))
- 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 Mr B's comments;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided.
What I found
What should have happened
- The Council’s housing allocations scheme says applicants must keep the information on their housing application up to date and notify the Council of any changes of address. The allocations scheme says the Council may close the case where the Council has made reasonable attempts to contact the applicant and they have not responded.
- The allocations scheme says if the Council decides an applicant is ineligible or does not qualify for housing, it will let the applicant know in writing. There is then a right to request a review of that decision within 21 days, although the timescales can be extended in exceptional circumstances.
- Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 (the Act) and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities (the code) set out councils' powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
- Someone is threatened with homelessness if, when asking for assistance from the council:
- he or she is likely to become homeless within 56 days; or
- he or she has been served with a valid Section 21 notice which will expire within 56 days. (Housing Act 1996, section 175(4) & (5))
- be homeless;
- be eligible for assistance; and,
- have a priority need.
What happened – housing register application
- Mr B had been registered on the housing register with his partner until 2017. In September 2017 Mr B’s partner contacted the Council to tell it Mr B had moved out of the property. The Council telephoned Mr B and spoke to him in September 2017. Mr B confirmed he had been homeless for four months. The Council advised him to attend the Council’s offices and complete a homeless application as well as updating his address. The Council advised Mr B if he did not provide a new address by 2 October the Council would remove his partner and child from the application which might close the application. As Mr B had not contacted the Council it closed the case on 25 October. The Council notified Mr B at the only address it had for him, which was the address he previously occupied with his partner.
- Mr B did not contact the Council again until July 2019. The Council told Mr B his application had been closed and he needed to make a new application. Mr B declined to do so. Mr B put in a request for a review of the decision to close his housing register application in March 2020. The Council refused to accept that as a request for a review given the passage of time and treated it as a complaint instead.
What happened - homeless applications
- Mr B contacted the Council on 8 January 2019 to report he had been homeless and sofa surfing for two years. Mr B said his doctor had signed him off sick with depression and he needed temporary accommodation. The Council asked Mr B to complete an online referral form and an officer would be in contact. Mr B completed the online form. There is no evidence the Council contacted Mr B until 26 March 2019 when an officer left Mr B a voicemail message asking for a return call. As Mr B did not telephone the Council closed the file on 2 May.
- Mr B visited the Council’s offices to check on the progress of his homeless application on 20 June 2019. The Council told Mr B it had closed his case as he had not contacted the Council. The Council asked Mr B to complete a new referral form. Mr B did that on 19 July. Mr B told the Council he had depression and PTSD. The Council asked Mr B for some documentary evidence to support his application. The Council then interviewed Mr B about his homeless application on 23 July. The Council told Mr B if vulnerability were satisfied the Council would provide a hostel or housing likely out of inner London. Mr B asked whether he could get back on the housing register and was advised as he had no address it would be difficult. Mr B subsequently provided documentary evidence to support his application which included medical evidence.
- The Council tried to contact Mr B in August without success. An officer reviewed the case in September and identified Mr B had a number of support needs and suggested the case worker dealing with the case contact the other agencies involved with Mr B’s care.
- Mr B contacted the Council again on 1 November. The Council reminded Mr B during that call he had said he did not want to pursue a homeless application and wanted social housing instead. The Council told Mr B he could reapply to join the housing register. Mr B said he would seek a solicitor.
- Mr B’s solicitor contacted the Council in April 2020. The Council asked Mr B to complete a new homeless application. Mr B provided some information in support of his homeless application in May 2020. A Council officer spoke to Mr B about his homeless application on 1 June 2020. Mr B explained he had been sofa surfing and squatting for the previous three years since his relationship broke up. He reported having ADHD, depression and a bowel condition which had not been diagnosed. The Council told Mr B once it had completed its investigations it would likely have a relief duty towards him. Mr B agreed to provide a medical summary. The Council subsequently drew up a personalised housing plan and provided Mr B with interim accommodation.
What happened - complaint correspondence
- Mr B put in a complaint in March 2020. The Council responded to that complaint in May 2020. Mr B asked the Council for a review of the complaint response as he was dissatisfied with it. The Council asked Mr B for more detail about why he was unhappy with the first response. At that point Mr B’s solicitor took over responsibility for the complaint. Mr B’s solicitor told the Council it could not make representations in relation to the complaint until the Council had provided the solicitor with a copy of Mr B’s housing file. On 19 June the Council wrote to Mr B’s solicitor to advise of its view that a further review of the complaint was not necessary as the housing record supported the Council’s initial complaint response. The Council said it would send the solicitor a copy of Mr B’s housing file by 18 July.
- I have exercised the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction to investigate Mr B’s concern about how the Council terminated his housing register application in 2017. That is because I am satisfied Mr B did not know his housing register application had been closed until 2019.
- Mr B says the Council wrongly removed him from the housing register in 2017 when it knew he was homeless. Mr B also says the Council did not tell him about that decision until 2019. The evidence I have seen satisfies me Mr B was registered on the housing register with his partner and child in 2017. The evidence is also clear Mr B’s partner told the Council she had separated from Mr B in September 2017. The documentary records show the Council spoke to Mr B about that and advised him to provide a new address. The Council also told Mr B he needed to attend the Council’s offices to complete a homeless application given he advised the Council he had been homeless for four months by that point. Despite that advice I have seen no evidence Mr B provided the Council with a new address or contacted the Council again until January 2019. Given the lack of contact from Mr B I cannot criticise the Council for closing his housing register application.
- In reaching that view I appreciate the Council knew in September 2017 Mr B was homeless. Mr B’s representative says the Council should therefore not have closed the housing register application because it should have known Mr B was entitled to housing points due to his homelessness. While Mr B’s representative is right the Council knew Mr B was homeless in September 2017 there is then no further evidence of contact between Mr B and the Council until January 2019. The Council therefore had no information about Mr B’s housing circumstances for all of that period. I therefore consider even if the Council had kept Mr B’s housing register application open for longer in 2017 it would still have reached the point where it would have had to close the application given the lack of contact from Mr B and the fact he did not provide an updated address. I therefore do not criticise the Council for closing Mr B’s housing register application. Nor is there any evidence Mr B missed out on properties due to the Council closing the housing register application given there is no evidence Mr B attempted to bid on properties after September 2017. If Mr B had done so he would have known the Council had closed his housing register application. Nor is there any evidence Mr B completed a new housing register application despite knowing since July 2019 that his housing register application had closed and he needed to make a new application.
- In terms of notification of the closure of the housing register application, I am satisfied the Council sent the decision to the only address it had on file for Mr B at the time. I cannot criticise the Council for that given it had made clear to Mr B he needed to provide a new address and he failed to do so. I therefore have no grounds to criticise the Council. It follows because I do not criticise the Council for closing the housing register application or for the way in which it notified Mr B of that closure I also do not criticise the Council for refusing to accept Mr B’s request for a review of the decision to close his housing register application in March 2020. By that point Mr B’s housing register application had been closed for more than two years. I am therefore satisfied the Council properly advised Mr B to complete a new housing register application.
- Mr B says the Council failed to take a homeless application from him or provide him with temporary accommodation at any point during 2019 despite knowing he was homeless and potentially in priority need. The evidence I have seen satisfies me Mr B completed two homeless forms in 2019. The first was in January 2019. The second was in July 2019. I will deal with each of those applications separately.
- For the January 2019 contact I am satisfied Mr B had told the Council he was homeless and had depression. I am also satisfied Mr B asked for interim accommodation. I refer to the homelessness code of guidance in paragraphs 15 and 16. As that guidance makes clear, the Council has a duty to carry out an interview, make enquiries and assess whether an applicant is homeless, eligible and in priority need. In this case I am satisfied the Council sent Mr B a letter on 8 January 2019 asking him to provide various documentary evidence. The Council’s letter made clear once Mr B had provided the requested documentation the Council would complete its assessment. That letter told Mr B if he did not contact the Council within the next 10 days it would assume he did not want to pursue his application and the Council would close it. Mr B disputes receiving that letter.
- I have seen no evidence Mr B made any further contact with the Council until June 2019. In those circumstances and given the limited information the Council had about Mr B’s circumstances at that point I do not criticise the Council for its actions in January 2019. Indeed, I note although the Council had told Mr B it would close his application if he did not contact it within 10 days the Council did not close the file until Mr B failed to respond to contact in March 2019. I therefore do not criticise the Council for how it dealt with Mr B’s contact in January 2019.
- I have some concerns though with how the Council dealt with Mr B’s second homeless application in July 2019. At this point Mr B provided further detail about his mental health and medical issues, along with supporting medical evidence. Mr B had also provided the Council with evidence he was homeless. I am satisfied the Council acted promptly on that homeless application by arranging an interview which took place on 23 July 2019. However, I am concerned about what happened after that.
- There is no evidence the Council made any enquiries on Mr B’s July 2019 homeless application, as it was required to do. Nor is there any evidence the Council completed a personalised housing plan with Mr B. Both are fault. In addition, as I say in paragraph 14, the homelessness code of guidance is clear the threshold for triggering the duty to provide accommodation is low and the Council only has to have reason to believe an applicant may be homeless, eligible for assistance and have priority need. Given Mr B had outlined his medical issues and provided supporting medical evidence I consider it should have been clear to the Council Mr B was likely in priority need. I therefore consider the Council’s failure to provide accommodation from July 2019 is fault. Given the Council did not then provide accommodation to Mr B until after his solicitor became involved this means Mr B missed out on accommodation. This meant Mr B missed out on accommodation and had to sofa surf for 12 months longer than he should have.
- In reaching that view I am aware the Council says Mr B told its officer he did not want to pursue a homeless application and instead wanted to pursue a housing register application. I accept it was clear Mr B wanted social housing rather than private sector housing, which is something he was unlikely to achieve through a homeless application. However, that does not mean the Council should not have processed the homeless application. In any event, I would have expected the Council to explain to Mr B that as he had no open housing register application it would likely be some time before he could receive social housing. I have seen no evidence to suggest the Council properly advised Mr B at that point or when he contacted the Council again in November 2019. Given Mr B’s circumstances were the same in July 2019 as they were in July 2020 when the Council provided Mr B with accommodation I consider it likely, on the balance of probability, if the Council had properly advised Mr B in July 2019 he would have accepted interim accommodation and pursued his homeless application. I therefore consider, as I said in the previous paragraph, fault by the Council resulted in Mr B missing out on accommodation for longer than he should have. That is a serious injustice.
- I now have to go on to consider what remedy is appropriate. As I have set out, I consider fault by the Council meant Mr B missed out on accommodation for 12 months longer than he should have and had to sofa surf and squat during that period. The Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies says we will normally recommend an amount between £150 and £350 per month where fault by the Council has resulted in a person missing out on accommodation or suitable accommodation. The top end of that scale is usually appropriate when a person has had to sleep rough. In this case Mr B was squatting and staying between various friends. In those circumstances I consider £250 per month an appropriate remedy. That makes a total financial remedy to reflect the failure to provide accommodation of £3,000. I also recommended the Council apologise to Mr B and carry out training for officers on the requirements when a person presents to the Council as homeless. The Council has agreed to my recommendations.
- Mr B says the Council failed to follow its complaints policy when it refused to take his complaint to stage two. Mr B accepts the Council can decide there are no grounds to investigate at stage two but says that is only after the Council has contacted the person who has complained and that did not happen in this case. The documentary evidence I have seen satisfies me the Council contacted Mr B to ask for more information when Mr B requested a stage two complaint. While I am therefore satisfied the Council made contact with Mr B I note Mr B’s representative made clear it could not put in detail comments about the reasons for disagreeing with the initial complaint response until the representative had received a full copy of Mr B’s housing file. It is clear the Council then declined to take the case to stage two before disclosing Mr B’s housing file to Mr B’s representative. I do not consider that appropriate given Mr B’s representative had made clear it was not in a position to outline the areas of disagreement with the initial complaint response until Mr B’s housing file had been received. Deciding to refuse the request to go to stage two at this point was therefore premature and is fault. I recommended the Council apologise for that and remind those dealing with complaints of the need to give the person who has complained sufficient time to put in writing their concerns about the complaint response where it has been agreed to provide further documentary evidence to the person that has complained. The Council has agreed to my recommendations.
- Within one month of my decision the Council should:
- apologise to Mr B for failing to deal with his homeless applications in 2019 properly and for prematurely deciding not to allow his complaint to go to stage two;
- pay Mr B £3,000 to reflect the additional 12 months where he did not have accommodation due to fault by the Council;
- carry out a training session for officers dealing with homeless applicants to cover the requirements under the legislation to:
- interview the person that has presented to the Council as homeless;
- carry out enquiries into that application; and
- consider the Council's duty to provide interim accommodation.
- I have completed my investigation and found fault by the Council in part of the complaint which caused Mr B an injustice. I am satisfied the action the Council will take is sufficient to remedy that injustice.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I am not investigating the complaint that the Council failed to take a homeless application from Mr B in 2017 as it relates to matters which occurred more than 12 months ago. I see no reason why Mr B could not have brought his complaint to the Ombudsman at the time or within 12 months. I am therefore not exercising the Ombudsman’s discretion to investigate this part of the complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman