The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B complained to the Council about the failure to deal with his homeless application in accordance with the law and guidance. We found the Council delayed and continues to delay in deciding if it owes him a housing duty and assisting him to secure accommodation. It has also failed to offer him interim accommodation or explain why he is not eligible for it. The Council agreed to pay him £1000, take action on his homeless application and review its procedures again in three months.
- Mr B complains that Westminster City Council (the Council) failed to:
- process his homelessness application in accordance with the law within a reasonable time;
- provide suitable interim accommodation;
- decide if it owes him a housing duty;
- complete a medical assessment or consider the impact of his disabilities on his housing need; and
- communicate with him regularly with updates about the progress of his application.
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 an organisation’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 considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant, made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided. Mr B and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
Summary of the key law and guidance
- Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities set out councils’ powers and duties to people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
- An applicant must be treated as homeless, regardless of the availability and legal rights to occupy accommodation, if it is not reasonable for them to continue to occupy the accommodation. (Housing Act 1996 section 175(3))
- Councils must take reasonable steps to secure accommodation for any eligible homeless person. This is the relief duty. When a council decides this duty has come to an end (usually after 56 days), it must notify the applicant in writing. (Housing Act 1996, section 189B)
- A council must secure interim accommodation for applicants and their household if it has reason to believe they may be homeless, eligible for assistance and have a priority need (eg vulnerable due to serious health problems). (Housing Act 1996, section 188)
- If a council is satisfied an applicant is homeless, eligible for assistance, and has a priority need the council has a duty to ensure that accommodation is available for them. This is the main housing duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 193 and Homelessness Code of Guidance 15.39)
- Mr B applied to the Council has homeless in early July 2021. He had left accommodation in a different city due to harassment and disrepair. He was staying in a basement room in a hotel, which he said was dirty, claustrophobic and had cockroaches. He said he had health problems. The Council asked him to provide information from his GP. Mr B provided a letter on 22 July 2021 which confirmed he had mental health problems.
- At the end of August 2021, the Council made an appointment for a telephone interview on 15 September 2021. The notes say he described his situation and medical symptoms. He was on sick pay and receiving benefits. He had moved to a different room in the hotel but was due to move to a different hotel due to an unacceptable rent increase. He said a hotel room was not suitable for him due to his medical needs and lack of cooking facilities. He said he wanted a council flat and refused a referral to a support agency because they helped people to find accommodation in the private sector. Mr B disputes he refused help from the support agency. He said he spoke to them twice but they did not offer him any support.
- The Council asked him to complete a medical assessment form which he did on 23 September 2021. The Council did not contact him again.
- In December 2021 an advice agency made a complaint to the Council on behalf of Mr B about the failure to deal with his homeless application and the difficulty in getting touch with his caseworker. Mr B had been living in several hotels since September 2021.
- The Council replied in early January 2022. It apologised for failing to decide if it owed Mr B a relief duty following the interview in September 2021 and for the lack of communication. It apologised and offered him £250 for the 15 week delay. It also said the Council would review his case urgently and a make a decision on the relief duty and whether to offer him interim accommodation.
- The Council contacted him shortly afterwards to discuss his current circumstances. It asked him to provide proof of his income and evidence of the state of his room. The advice agency escalated his complaint to stage two of the Council’s procedure highlighting the inadequacy of the hotel accommodation: he had no cooking facilities and his health problems were getting worse.
- The Council responded at the end of January. It said it had not offered him interim accommodation because he was already living in a hotel. It said the Council was currently considering his case including the medical assessment and offered him a further £120. Mr B then complained to the Ombudsman.
- On 18 February 2022 the Council referred Mr B to the support agency who work jointly with the Council to provide support to homeless people in securing accommodation. On 28 February 2022 the Council started to make enquiries into Mr B’s circumstances.
- On 1 March 2022 the Council spoke to Mr B by telephone. It assessed his housing needs and sent him a Personal Housing Plan saying he required a studio or one-bedroom flat in Westminster. Mr B needed to provide proof of his income, join Homefinder UK and work with private sector lettings team. The Council would liaise with GP, provide information on the Local Housing Allowance and renting in private sector. It would refer him to the joint assessment service and the private sector lettings team and the agency for support needs. It also sent Mr B notification that it had accepted a relief duty towards him.
- The Council sent an email to Mr B’s GP with a questionnaire on 1 March 2022. Mr B is still living in a hotel with no access to cooking facilities.
- The Council has delayed and continues to delay in dealing with Mr’s B’s homeless application in accordance with the law and guidance. When Mr B first approached the Council in July 2021 the Council should have considered whether to offer him interim accommodation. There is no evidence that it considered this issue. It has not explained why it considered the hotel accommodation was suitable accommodation or why it discounted the medical evidence he provided that he was vulnerable. This was fault.
- The Council did not provide interim accommodation or offer any advice or assistance on his situation. It did not contact him for over seven weeks and carried out a telephone interview three weeks after that. This process took too long and was fault. I would expect the Council to have provided accommodation (or written notification why he was not eligible for interim accommodation) within a week of Mr B’s first contact and then interviewed Mr B within a month and decided whether it owed him a relief duty.
- The Council had a second opportunity in September 2021 to offer Mr B interim accommodation or explain why he was not eligible, but it failed to act. It should have carried out an assessment, decided whether it owed him a relief duty and obtained further medical information to decide whether Mr B is in priority need. It only started the assessment and enquiry process on 1 March 2021, nearly six months later and eight months after he first contacted the Council. This was fault.
- Mr B has been living in unsuitable hotel accommodation since July 2021 which he has had to find himself and which, he says, makes his health problems worse. He has been caused distress and uncertainty by the failure of the Council to help him and despite contacting the Council on many occasions and making a formal complaint, he is still in the same situation.
Wider public interest
- I am concerned that the delay in dealing with homeless applications is a systemic problem at the Council. The Council answered the complaint promptly on both occasions which is welcome, but it appears to have a tariff of compensation suggesting a larger number of complaints on the same issue. It has also failed to implement the urgent action promised in the complaint response.
- In its response to my enquiries the Council says it has received, and continues to receive, a large number of homeless applications. It has carried out a review of the service, implemented improvements and employed more staff, both caseworkers and administrative support. While I welcome these actions it would be helpful to see evidence that they are having a positive impact
- I welcome the Council’s acceptance of fault causing injustice and its offer to pay total of £370. However, I consider an increased payment is appropriate to put right the injustice.
- I recommend that the Council:
- within two weeks of my final decision, offers Mr B interim accommodation or explains why he is not eligible.
- within one month of my final decision:
- provides an update of the action taken to secure accommodation for Mr B during the relief duty period, including whether the Council considers he is in priority need;
- provides an update on its progress in reaching a decision on the main housing duty; and
- pays Mr B £1000.
- I consider this is a proportionate way of putting right the injustice caused to Mr B and I have completed my investigation on this basis.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman