The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complains about how the Council dealt with his housing and homeless case. The Council was at fault for failing to decide whether Mr X was threatened with homelessness in a timely manner and whether it owed him a prevention duty. The Council was also at fault for its poor record keeping and poor communication with Mr X. As a result, the Council’s failings caused Mr X distress, uncertainty, inconvenience and financial loss. The Council will take action to remedy the injustice caused.
- Mr X complains about how the Council dealt with his housing and homeless case. In particular, the Council’s:
- failure to provide him and his family with support when his landlord served a Section 21 notice to prevent his homelessness
- lack of communication. Mr X said the Council completely ignored him and his housing circumstances. He said he was also unable to contact his housing advice officer on several occasions when he needed to do so
- poor record keeping in relation to when the Council said it did not receive Mr X’s private sector lettings application and supporting documents which he submitted in September 2020.
- Mr X says the Council’s failure has caused him and his family significant distress, anxiety, uncertainty and financial loss.
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
- I have discussed the complaint with Mr X and considered the information he provided. I considered the information the Council provided in response to my enquiries.
- I sent Mr X and the Council a copy of my draft decision and considered all comments received before reaching a final decision.
What I found
Legislation and Statutory Guidance
- 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; 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))
- Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Code of Guidance of Local Authorities (the Code) set the councils’ powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
- If a council has ‘reason to believe’ someone may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, it must take a homelessness application and make inquiries. The threshold for taking an application is low. The person does not have to complete a specific form or approach a particular council department. (Housing Act 1996, section 184 and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraphs 6.2 and 18.5)
- If someone is threatened with homelessness, the council has a duty to help the applicant keep their accommodation. This is called the Prevention Duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 195)
- 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, in writing, 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)
- A council must keep the PHP under review and notify the applicant of any changes. Some applicants need more intensive council involvement to achieve a successful outcome, and a council’s timescales for regular contact and reviews should reflect this. (Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraph 11.32)
- After completing inquiries, the council must give the applicant a decision in writing. If it is an adverse decision, the letter must fully explain the reasons. All letters must include information about the right to request a review and the timescale for doing so. (Housing Act 1996, section 184, Homelessness Code of Guidance 18.32 and 18.33)
- This chronology includes key events in this case and does not cover everything that happened.
- At the end of July 2020, Mr X’s landlord served him and his family with section 21 notice. The same day, Mr X informed the Council he received the landlord’s notice to terminate the tenancy at his property. The notice required Mr X and his family to leave the property by the end of October 2020.
- In early August 2020, Mr X submitted an online homeless person’s application to the Council. The Council asked Mr X for additional information and evidence before it could assess and allocate his case to a housing advice officer.
- On 10 August 2020, Mr X informed the Council he was looking for alternative accommodation. He said he was struggling financially and would be unable to afford the deposit and the rent advance payment. The Council provided Mr X with advice about its Private Sector Lettings (PSL) scheme. The Council told Mr X it was willing to assist him and it would carry out a financial assessment for Mr X. It informed Mr X he needed to get a landlord who would be willing to take part in the PSL scheme.
- On two occasions, towards the end of August 2020, the Council chased Mr X for the additional information and evidence it had requested from him. Mr X told the Council he was on holiday and would send the documents to the Council the following week on his return. Mr X also said he had found an alternative private rented property. The Council sent Mr X a PSL form to complete. It advised Mr X to return the completed PSL form, with the outstanding requested evidence for his homeless application.
- On 3 September 2020, the Council reminded Mr X to complete his application form and provide it with the requested outstanding supporting evidence.
- On 10 September Mr X contacted the Council and asked for an update on his application. The Council told him he was yet to submit the requested documents in relation to his application. Mr X said he had sent the documents to the Council and he was unhappy about its delay in dealing with his application. He told the Council he had found an alternative property and paid a holding deposit but he needed to pay the balance by four weeks’ time.
- On 10 September 2020, Mr X sent an email to the Council with the supporting evidence attached. He received an acknowledgement email from the Council. The Council sent Mr X a follow-on email asking for his completed PSL application form. On 12 September 2020, Mr X submitted his PSL application. He received an automated reply from the Council to acknowledge receipt of his completed form.
- In November 2020, the Council sent an email to Mr X that it was reviewing his homeless application. The Council said it did not appear to have had any further contact from Mr X since September 2020. The Council asked Mr X to confirm if he had resolved his housing needs and if he no longer needed its support.
- On 26 November 2020, Mr X made a formal complaint to the Council. Mr X expressed his dissatisfaction about the Council’s delays and lack of support with paying his rent deposit and securing an accommodation for him. He also complained about the lack of communications from his allocated housing advice officer and the poor quality of service the Council provided to him. Mr X explained he had to get money from various banks to secure the alternative property he found and to pay other housing related costs. Mr X said he submitted his PSL application but the Council failed to assess and respond to his application. He asked the Council to tell him if he was eligible to receive help with the rent deposit and if the Council could support him in any way.
- The Council called Mr X to discuss his complaint. It said Mr X withdrew his homeless person application because he had resolved his homelessness situation without any support from the Council. Mr X confirmed he wished to progress his formal complaint with the Council.
- In its stage one response, the Council said Mr X’s PSL application was not on its homeless record. But following a further review of Mr X’s homeless application in February 2021, it confirmed it had received Mr X’s PSL application in September 2020. The Council also acknowledged Mr X’s inability to contact his allocated housing advice officer when he needed to. It explained its officers operated a daily timetable which meant any officer could have dealt with Mr X’s case when his allocated officer was unavailable.
- The Council said its failure to properly deal with Mr X’s housing case was due to various reasons. This included lack of resources, the extreme pressure the impact of COVID-19 had on its homelessness service. It said it also failed to do a full search of its housing team various email addresses and mailboxes when it looked for the information Mr X submitted to it.
- The Council apologised for the stress and inconvenience caused to Mr X. It said if it had followed the correct procedures from the start, Mr X may have been entitled to some financial help with his rent deposit and rent in advance. It explained this would have been an interest-free loan which could have prevented Mr X from incurring the extra costs he did when he funded his move.
- The Council acknowledged there were some lessons to be learnt and confirmed it was reviewing some processes to improve its customers’ journey within the housing advise service. As a good will gesture, the Council offered Mr X a £50 food voucher. The Council offered to refund the additional council tax amount Mr X paid in October 2020 and a £250 payment as compensation to him. This was to acknowledge its multiple errors in dealing with Mr X’s case and the unsatisfactory service it provided to him. The Council said its customer journey would be better due to its recent restructure and the new processes it was putting in place to stop future errors occurring.
- Mr X remained dissatisfied with the Council’s response. He declined the Council’s offer and made a complaint to the Ombudsman.
- In response to my enquiries, the Council confirmed it:
- restructured its service and created a new Homeless Prevention Team in January 2021
- set up a new streamlined PSL process in January 2021
- developed a new Customer Assessment Form in February 2021. This is to ensure customers’ financial circumstances are captured at the initial enquiry stage
- has introduced an appointment-based system. This offers face to face and telephone assessments in addition to the Council’s duty officer system and a new triage stage.
- The Council said its offer to Mr X remains available to him. This includes the additional October 2020 council tax amount refund, £250 compensation, £50 food voucher and any interest on money Mr X borrowed to pay the deposit and rent in advance.
- Evidence shows Mr X informed the Council his landlord served a section 21 notice on him in July 2020, submitted his PSL application and his supporting evidence to the Council in September 2020. The Council told Mr X it did not receive his completed PSL application form. However, in February 2021 after the Council carried out a further review of Mr X’s homeless application, it confirmed it received Mr X’s PSL application form in September 2020. This amounted to a five-month delay in acknowledging receipt and assessing Mr X’s PSL application. This was fault. This caused Mr X distress, uncertainty, time and trouble chasing the matter up with the Council and the additional costs he incurred in securing an alternative accommodation.
- The Council failed to decide whether Mr X was threatened with homelessness and whether it owed him a prevention duty. This was fault. However, I cannot say what the Council’s assessment outcome would have been if it had considered his application in a timely manner. But this caused uncertainty to Mr X.
- I note the Council’s explanation about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on its service and resources. It said this resulted in its poor communication with Mr X especially in October 2020. I find fault by the Council not communicating with Mr X between September 2020 and November 2020. In particular when it was aware Mr X’s notice required him and his family to leave his previous property by the end of October 2020. This caused Mr X anxiety, uncertainty and distress.
- The Council has accepted and apologised for its failings in properly dealing with Mr X’s housing and homelessness case. The Council offered Mr X a £50 food voucher, a £250 compensation and a refund of any interest incurred in Mr X self-financing the rent deposit and rent in advance. The Council in its response to my enquiries, confirmed these offers remain available to Mr X.
- Following the Ombudsman issuing the draft decision statement, the Council confirmed it has refunded Mr X the additional council tax amount he paid in October 2020 (£156.36). The Council has also provided evidence to show it has restructured its service as listed in paragraph 30 above. I find these are proportionate and appropriate and in accordance with our guidance on remedies.
- To remedy the injustice caused by the faults identified the Council has agreed within one month of the final decision to:
- apologise again in writing to Mr X for the distress and uncertainty caused by the delays and failure to properly deal with his housing and homeless applications
- pay Mr X £250 for the delay in assessing his homeless application. And to acknowledge the uncertainty and distress caused to Mr X
- award Mr X a £50 food voucher
- refund Mr X any interest he incurred when he self-financed the rent deposit and rent in advance for his new accommodation
- by training or other means remind staff of the importance of following and discharging its statutory duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness. This should be in line with the Homelessness Code of Guidance.
- I find evidence of fault by the Council causing injustice to Mr X. The Council has agreed to take action to remedy the injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman