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Birmingham City Council (21 002 185)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 13 Dec 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms B complained about the Council’s response when she became homeless. We found fault with the Council for leaving the family in unsuitable accommodation for a prolonged period. We also found there were delays in the suitability review and complaint process. The Council agreed actions to remedy the injustice to Ms B and her children.

The complaint

  1. Ms B complained about the way the Council responded when she became homeless.
  2. She complained the Council:
    • Placed her and her children in unsuitable accommodation.
    • Delayed carrying out a suitability review.
    • Placed them at risk of verbal abuse and violence.
  3. Ms B said this caused her and her children significant distress over a prolonged period. It directly affected their mental health and wellbeing. Ms B also said the Council left her in accommodation that put them at risk.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  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 spoke to Ms B and considered the information she provided wither complaint. I made enquiries with the Council and considered its response along with relevant law and guidance.
  2. Ms B and the Council had the opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I carefully considered any comments I received before making my final decision.

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What I found

Law and guidance

Homelessness

  1. The Housing Act 1996 (part 7) is the core legislation outlining the Council’s duties to those who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
  2. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 applies to all homelessness applications made since 3 April 2018. It introduced new homelessness prevention and relief duties which cover all homeless applicants, regardless of priority need or intentional homelessness.
  3. The Homelessness Code of Guidance is statutory guidance to councils on interpreting homelessness duties and carrying out their functions.
  4. If someone is homeless, or threatened with homelessness within 56 days, they can seek help from the housing authority (council). They must be eligible for assistance.
  5. Where the person is actually homeless, the relief duty may apply. The council will need to carry out an assessment and work with the person to develop a personalised housing plan (PHP).
  6. If a council has reason to believe a person may be:
    • homeless;
    • eligible; and
    • in priority need.

then it must provide interim accommodation for them.

  1. When a council is satisfied an applicant is in priority need and is not intentionally homeless, the relief duty ends after 56 days. The council must then complete inquiries promptly to decide if any further duty is owed (the main housing duty).
  2. The Council may give notice to bring the relief duty to an end in certain circumstances.
    • The suitability of accommodation offered to the applicant after a homelessness duty has been accepted (and the suitability of accommodation offered under section 200(3) and section 193). Applicants can request a review of the suitability of accommodation whether or not they have accepted the offer.
  3. Section 204 gives an applicant who is dissatisfied with the section 202 review a right of appeal to County Court. An appeal must be brought within 21 days of the applicant being notified of the review decision. The Court may give permission for a late appeal if there is a good reason why it was not made in time.
  4. Where the housing authority arranges accommodation this must be suitable for the person and those who can reasonably be expected to live with them.

What happened

  1. What follows is a chronology of key events. It does not contain all the information I reviewed during my investigation.
  2. Ms B made a homeless application and housing application to the Council in January 2019. She told the Council she needed to leave her family home because of domestic abuse. She has two children. The Council accepted its duty to provide temporary accommodation. Ms B left her family home in August 2019 and the Council placed her in temporary accommodation.
  3. Between August 2019 and January 2020 Ms B and her two children were housed in four different hotels as temporary accommodation. They all lived in one hotel room. The rooms had a bathroom but no cooking facilities.
  4. In September 2019 Ms B requested a review of the suitability of the temporary accommodation. In October 2019 the Council decided the accommodation was not suitable and placed Ms B on the planned move list to wait for alternative accommodation.
  5. In January 2020 the Council offered Ms B a flat. She moved in at the end of January. Whilst at the flat she experienced ongoing issues with neighbours. This culminated in a serious incident in July 2020 when the Police became involved. Following this incident Ms B asked for a suitability review because she said her family were at risk of further violence if they remained at the flat. Ms B also made a complaint to the Council about the way her case was being managed.
  6. In July 2021 the Council decided the flat was not suitable temporary accommodation because Ms B’s family was at risk of violence. It told her:

“I have asked the temporary accommodation to seek alternative temporary accommodation for you and you will be notified once an alternative has been secured”.

  1. In September 2021 the Police made a referral to the Council because Ms B was at risk of harm from her neighbour. The Council offered to place Ms B in a hotel but she declined.
  2. Ms B was unhappy with the Council’s lack of action and complained to the Ombudsman.
  3. In October 2021 the Council responded to Ms B’s complaint. The Council:
    • Apologised for the unacceptable delays.
    • Acknowledged the stress Ms B experienced and apologised for the Council adding to it by failing to address its causes.
    • Said it was striving to find more suitable accommodation but it had limited temporary accommodation available.
    • Said it considered the police referral but it did not find her to be in exceptional need as she did not score high enough for a greater banding.
  4. Ms B was unhappy with the Council’s response and complained to the Ombudsman.

My findings

Suitability of temporary accommodation

  1. The Council provided Ms B and her children with temporary accommodation because it accepted it had a duty to accommodate them.
  2. I understand that hotel accommodation was used because the Council had no other temporary housing available when Ms B became homeless. Irrespective of this, I found the length of time the Council placed the family in hotels was fault.
  3. The accommodation Ms B and her children were placed in was not strictly Bed and Breakfast accommodation, as defined by the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2003. The Order says this is accommodation where there is a need to share a toilet, washing facilities or cooking facilities with other households. There were no shared facilities in this instance. However, there were no cooking facilities at all.
  4. Ms B and her children were in hotel accommodation between August 2019 and January 2020. I found that the prolonged period in hotel accommodation, the need for moves between hotels and the lack of facilities made this accommodation unsuitable. The lack of kitchen facilities caused additional food costs.
  5. There was no case recording between October 2019 and January 2020. I am not clear what, if any, action the Council took to find alternative accommodation. It moved Ms B in January 2020 after the family’s support worker contacted the Council. They told the Council about the impact staying the hotel room was having on the family’s mental health. I am concerned that without this contact the family may have been in hotels for even longer.
  6. The Council moved the family into alternative temporary accommodation, this was a flat. Ms B experienced issues with a neighbour and after a serious incident in July 2020 she asked for a suitability review. It took the Council 12 months to review the suitability. In July 2021 it decided the accommodation was unsuitable because Ms B was at risk of further anti-social behaviour and violence.
  7. I cannot say what may have happened if the suitability review had been carried out without any delay. But it meant the family were again left in unsuitable accommodation. When it decided the accommodation was unsuitable it offered to move Ms B back into a hotel. Ms B declined the offer. This is understandable given her previous experience. The Council should not replace one type of unsuitable accommodation with another.
  8. Despite the review decision and the concerns of other professionals working with the family Ms B and the children remained in the flat and were still living there at the time of this decision.
  9. The agreed financial remedy reflects the amount of time the family spent in unsuitable accommodation. The injustice the unsuitable accommodation caused Ms B and her children was significant. It affected every part of their lives and seriously affected their mental health and wellbeing.

Delays in the suitability review and complaint handling.

  1. There were significant delays in both the suitability review process and the complaint handling. This is fault.
  2. In its complaint response the Council apologised for “unacceptable delays in communication”.
  3. The poor complaint handling also meant Ms B was put to the additional time and trouble of bringing her complaint to us.
  4. In its complaint response to Ms B the Council accepted it was at fault and that the fault had caused Ms B an injustice. Other that an apology it made no attempt to remedy the injustice it caused her and the children. This was a missed opportunity to resolve the complaint at an earlier stage.
  5. In response to our enquiries the Council said it is already taking action to address its temporary accommodation shortages.

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Agreed action

  1. Within six weeks of my final decision the Council agrees to:
    • Pay Ms B £5,411 in recognition of the period the family spent in unsuitable accommodation. This amount recognises the period up to the date of this decision. After this date the Council should continue to pay Ms B £250 per month until she is rehoused in suitable accommodation.
    • Pay Ms B £1,500 in recognition of the distress, time and trouble it caused her.
    • Pay each of Ms B’s children £1,000 in recognition of the distress it caused them.
    • Take action to secure suitable accommodation for the family.
  2. The Council agrees to provide the Ombudsman with an update on the progress of its temporary accommodation shortages plan of action in April 2022.
  3. The Council should provide the Ombudsman with evidence it has completed the agreed actions.

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Final decision

  1. I found fault with the Council causing injustice.

Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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