The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms X complained the Council threatened to dispose of her personal belongings which it had stored for her since her eviction from a property in 2017. There was no fault in the Council threatening to dispose of Ms X’s property because she failed to make regular payments for storage, in line with her agreement, leading to arrears on her account. However, there was fault in the Council’s communication with Ms X about its decision. The Council agreed to write to Ms X and apologise for the uncertainty and confusion this caused. It agreed to clearly explain whether it believes it has a duty to continue protecting her belongings, ensuring its decision is in line with relevant law and guidance.
- Ms X complained about the Council’s actions and decisions regarding her housing between 2011 and 2021. In particular Ms X complained:
- The Council decided to end her housing benefit in 2011.
- The Council failed to signpost her to apply for discretionary housing benefit between 2011 and 2016.
- The Council’s online benefit calculator misrepresented her housing benefit entitlement.
- The Council used Local Housing Allowance rules to determine her housing benefit claim in 2018.
- The Council evicted her from a property in 2017.
- About the Council’s decision to end its homelessness duty when she refused an offer of accommodation in 2017.
- About the Council’s decision that Ms X was intentionally homeless in 2020.
- About decisions and actions of children’s services prior to 2017.
- About the Council’s decision to issue her with a notice of disposal of her personal belongings which it has stored for her since her eviction from a property in 2017.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated complaint 9 only. I have not investigated complaints 1-8 for the reasons explained at the end of this decision statement.
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)
- 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)
- 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)
- The courts have said that where someone has used their right of appeal, reference or review or remedy by way of proceedings in any court of law, the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction to investigate. This is the case even if the appeal did not or could not provide a complete remedy for all the injustice claimed. (R v The Commissioner for Local Administration ex parte PH (1999) EHCA Civ 916)
- 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 considered Ms X’s complaint letter and other information she provided.
- I considered the Council’s response to my enquiry letter.
- I considered relevant law and guidance including
- The Housing Act 1996
- The Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities
What I found
Relevant law and guidance
- Section 211 of the Housing Act 1996 outlines a council’s duty to protect or store a person’s personal belongings.
- Where a council owes an applicant a housing duty and it has reason to believe there is a danger of loss of, or damage to, an applicant's personal property because the applicant cannot protect it or make other arrangements the council must take reasonable steps to prevent the loss of or damage to it (this may include removing and storing property).
- The Homelessness Code of Guidance (the Code) says a council must take reasonable steps to prevent the loss of the property or mitigate damage to it. This applies regardless of whether the Council is still subject to a housing duty.
- The Code states a danger of loss or damage to personal property means there is a likelihood of harm, not just that harm is a possibility. Applicants may be unable to protect their property if, for example they are ill or are unable to afford to have it stored themselves.
- The Housing Act and the Code state councils may impose conditions on the assistance they provide. This includes making a reasonable charge for storage of property and reserving the right to dispose of the property in certain circumstances specified by the council.
- The council’s duty to protect the property does not automatically end when other duties cease. It must continue to take reasonable steps to protect property if necessary. In practical terms the duty usually ends at the applicant’s request or where the council believes there is no longer a risk of loss or damage. The Code states this may be the case when for example an applicant finds accommodation where they are able to place their possessions or becomes able to afford the storage costs themselves.
- In 2017 Ms X was evicted from her home and the Council, in line with is duty, agreed to store her personal belongings. Case records show the Council met with Ms X and advised of its procedure for removing and storing her property and the relevant costs. The case records show Ms X presented at the time as very vulnerable. Records show Ms X refused alternative accommodation offered by the Council and arranged her own.
- The Council wrote to Ms X in April 2017 outlining the storage agreement for her belongings. The letter explained the Council’s charges and Ms X’s required contribution. The letter gave details of who to contact if she was unable to pay the charges. It also told Ms X that failure to pay the charges may lead to the Council seeking to return the goods to Ms X or arranging for their disposal.
- Case records show Ms X contacted the Council during 2017 to inform it she was unable to afford the ongoing costs to store her property. The Council agreed to reduce her weekly contribution but warned it would take action to dispose of her goods if arrears on her account reached £500.00.
- In early 2018 Ms X contacted the Council about the arrears on her storage account. Ms X told the Council she was waiting for issues around her housing benefit to be sorted. The Council agreed to hold off taking any action but would require payment of £60.00 per month. Ms X called a few weeks later and said she could not afford the charges as she was still waiting for an update on her housing benefit.
- In August 2018 the Council sent Ms X a letter warning her it would dispose of her property due to her failure to pay the arrears. Records show Ms X began making regular monthly payments of £20.00 towards the cost of storage.
- In mid-2019 the Council contacted Ms X again explaining it could only store her goods for a limited time. It asked Ms X to make arrangements to collect her goods or it offered to deliver them somewhere free of charge. Ms X contacted the Council. Ms X said she was aware the balance on her account was high however was struggling financially due to the high rent she was paying. Ms X said she hoped to settle the balance once her housing situation improved. Ms X said she was unable to make her own arrangements as she currently lived in a bedsit with limited space.
- The Council agreed to an extension for a limited time. It said Ms X’s arrears was now over £900.00 and it reminded her to make regular payments.
- Records show that Ms X approached the Council in September 2019 as homeless. The Council offered Ms X interim accommodation which she refused. The Council discharged its duty at this point.
- In early 2020 the Council contacted Ms X and asked her to make contact to discuss collecting her belongings from storage. The Council said it would dispose of her goods if she failed to make contact within 28 days.
- In March 2020 the Council informed Ms X that due to COVID-19 it would extend the deadline for her to make alternative arrangements. It encouraged Ms X to look for alternative storage as it could not subsidise her indefinitely.
- In June 2020 the Council sent Ms X a formal notice of disposal due to the ongoing expense and that Ms X had failed to make alternative arrangements despite its requests. Ms X said that due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic she was unable to make alternative storage arrangements.
- Ms X’s support worker contacted the Council on her behalf. They explained Ms X had no financial means to place her belongings in alternative storage. They said Ms X was currently in a bedsit with her daughter and had no space to store it herself. They asked the Council to continue storing her property until Ms X was successful in securing an alternative property.
- The Council responded to Ms X’s support worker. It said its duty to protect Ms X’s belongings came to an end after it ended its housing duty to her in 2017. It said the Council no longer owed a duty to Ms X’s belongings and she had over £1200 arrears on her account. The Council said it had contacted and encouraged Ms X to make her own arrangements. It had offered her a £200 grant to remove her property to a location of her choice which she had declined. It said it had not disposed of her property and would continue to work with her to find a solution.
- Records show Ms X told the Council in July 2020 that she hoped to be offered permanent housing soon and therefore asked It to wait until the outcome of those offers. Ms X turned down properties in October and November 2020 and therefore remained in her bedsit.
- Ms X complained to the Council that it was wrong to insist she arrange storage of her own belongings. The Council responded and said she had arrears on her account of over £1200 accrued since 2017. It outlined the contact it had had with Ms X and the extensions it kept giving her to arrange her own storage. The Council said it had made every effort to assist her including offering to deliver the property to her or to an alternative facility, paying £200 towards the cost and delaying disposal until she was offered housing. It said her belongings could not remain in storage indefinitely.
- Ms X remained unhappy and complained to us.
- The Council accepted a duty to protect Ms X’s belongings when it evicted her from her property in 2017 and placed these into storage. Relevant law and guidance allow the Council to make reasonable charges towards the cost of storing belongings. Although it is good practice to put a written agreement in place, I am satisfied the Council’s letter to Ms X in April 2017 explained the charges and the consequences of failing to pay. The records of accounts and relevant correspondence show Ms X was aware of the ongoing fees and requirement to pay which implies an agreement to the arrangement as set out by the Council. There was no fault in the Council issuing Ms X a notice of disposal after she consistently failed to make payments or pay the arrears.
- The Council’s communication to Ms X about the matter was not always consistent or in line with the Code. The Council said in correspondence that its duty to protect Ms X’s belongings ended when its housing duty towards her ended, because she has refused offers of housing and because of the arrears. This is fault. These are not sufficient reasons to end the duty to store Ms X’s property. The law says the duty continues, whether or not the Council is still subject to a housing duty, until there is no longer reason to believe there is a danger of loss or damage to the property by reason of Ms X’s inability to protect or deal with it. The Council has accepted this was fault which caused Ms X uncertainty and confusion. I have made a recommendation below for the Council to clearly set out its reasons to Ms X if it intends to end its duty due to the arrears on her account.
- Despite arrears on Ms X’s account the Council has continued to store Ms X’s belongings and keep them safe during the last four years. It has given Ms X extensions to pay the arrears and to make alternative arrangements. It has offered her a grant to pay for removal to a location of her choice and the opportunity to setup a payment plan. Therefore, it has met its duty to protect Ms X’s belongings and has acted in line with law and the code.
- Within one month of the final decision the Council agreed to write to Ms X and apologise for the uncertainty and confusion caused when it threatened to dispose of her property because it no longer owned her a housing duty, which was not in line with relevant law and guidance. The letter should include:
- confirmation it will continue to store and protect her belongings until such time it has no reason to believe Ms X is unable to protect it herself or conditions of disposal as outlined in the agreement are met. If it believes it no longer has a duty to protect Ms X’s belongings it should clearly explain why, in line with the law and homelessness code, giving her a reasonable period to make alternative arrangements.
- its offers of a £200 grant towards the ongoing cost of the storage and free delivery of the belongings to an address or alternative storage facility of Ms X’s choice.
- I completed my investigation. I found fault and the Council agreed to my recommendations to remedy the injustice caused by the fault.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I did not investigate complaint points 1-3, 5, and 8 because the complaints are out of time and it was reasonable for Ms X to have complained about them much earlier.
- I did not investigate complaint 4 because the tribunal has already considered and decided the matter.
- I did not investigate complaint 6 because Ms X has already used her right of review and court appeal rights about the matter.
- I did not investigate complaint 7 because a court has already considered and decided the matter.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman