Liverpool City Council (22 003 417)

Category : Housing > Homelessness

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 31 Jan 2023

The Investigation

The complaint

1. Mr X complained about how the Council dealt with his homelessness application in 2020. He says the Council:

  • did not respond when he asked it for help;

  • discriminated against him because he was not originally from the Council’s area; and

  • only responded to his complaint about this when he came to us.

2. Because of this Mr X says he:

  • was street homeless for six months while unwell and in need of surgery causing significant distress and physical pain, the effects of which are ongoing;

  • had to travel to a different council’s area, away from his children, to get the help he needed; and

  • spent significant time and trouble chasing his complaint.

3. Mr X wants the Council to dismiss relevant staff and provide financial compensation.

Legal and administrative background

The Ombudsman’s role and powers

4. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this report, we 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. We 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)

5. When considering complaints, if there is a conflict of evidence, we make findings based on the balance of probabilities. This means that we will weigh up the available relevant evidence and base our findings on what we think was more likely to have happened.

6. This complaint involves events that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government introduced a range of new and frequently updated rules and guidance during this time. We can consider whether a council followed the relevant legislation, guidance and our published “Good Administrative Practice during the response to COVID-19”.

Homelessness legislation

7. 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. Someone is threatened with homelessness if, when asking for assistance from the Council:

  • they are likely to become homeless within 56 days; or

  • they have been served with a valid Section 21 notice which will expire within 56 days.

8. 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)

9. A council must complete an assessment if it is satisfied an applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness to decide what, if any, duty it owes to the applicant. Councils must notify the applicant of the assessment. This assessment must include:

  • the circumstances that have caused them to become homeless or threatened with homelessness;

  • their housing needs; and

  • their support needs. (Housing Act 1996, section 189A and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraphs 11.7)

10. 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 applicant, follow from the findings of the assessment, and must be provided to the applicant in writing as their personalised housing plan. (Housing Act 1996, section 189A and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraphs 11.6 and 11.18)

11. If a council has reason to believe an applicant may be homeless, eligible for assistance, and have a priority need (e.g., they are vulnerable due to serious health problems), it must secure them interim accommodation. (Housing Act 1996, section 188)

12. If a council is satisfied an applicant is homeless and eligible for assistance, it must take reasonable steps to help to secure them suitable accommodation for at least six months. This is called the relief duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 189B)

13. Government guidance recommends councils have procedures in place for dealing with withdrawn homelessness applications, or cases where an applicant fails to maintain contact. It says:

  • it is reasonable for a council to consider an application closed where the applicant has not responded to any form of contact for 56 days or longer;

  • where an applicant renews contact within the 56 days, councils need to consider any change of circumstances that may affect the application; and

  • any further approach from the applicant after 56 days without contact may need to be considered as a fresh application. (Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraph 18.14)

The Council’s process for homelessness applications

14. Where the Council loses contact with a homelessness applicant before it has been able to make inquiries or decide what duty it owes them, it may close their case. Its internal staff guidance says before it can close a referral as having ‘lost contact’, it must make:

  • two telephone contact attempts; and

  • one email contact attempt with no response received within two weeks.

The Equality Act

15. The Equality Act 2010 protects the rights of individuals and supports equality of opportunity for all. It offers protection in employment, education, the provision of goods and services, housing, transport and the carrying out of public functions.

16. The Equality Act makes it unlawful for organisations carrying out public functions to discriminate on any of the nine protected characteristics listed in the Equality Act 2010. They must also have regard to the general duties aimed at eliminating discrimination under the Public Sector Equality Duty. The ‘protected characteristics’ referred to in the Act are: age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation.

17. The Public Sector Equality Duty requires all local authorities (and bodies acting on their behalf) to have due regard to the need to:

  • eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Equality Act 2010;

  • advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not; and

  • foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.

18. The broad purpose of the Public Sector Equality Duty is to consider equality and good relations into the day-to-day business and decision making of public authorities. It requires equality considerations to be reflected into the design of policies and the delivery of services, including internal policies, and for these issues to be kept under review.

The Council’s complaints procedure

19. The Council’s complaints procedure says:

  • it will issue a Stage 1 complaint response within 10 working days, or let the complainant know if this will be delayed;

  • if the complainant is not satisfied with the Stage 1 response, they can ask to escalate their complaint to Stage 2. At Stage 2, the Council will assign an independent investigating officer with no prior involvement. The officer will contact the complainant to agree the scope of the complaint, desired outcomes, and target date for completion; and

  • it will issue a Stage 2 response within 28 days of agreeing the scope of the complaint, or let the complainant know if there is any delay.

How we considered this complaint

20. We produced this report after examining relevant documents and interviewing the complainant.

21. We gave the complainant and the Council a confidential draft of this report and invited their comments. The comments received were taken into account before the report was finalised.

What we found

What happened

22. Mr X said he became street homeless in June 2020 when he had an untreated medical condition for which he was awaiting surgery. He contacted the Council using a number he found online and left a message saying he was street homeless and needed help. The answer phone greeting for the number said he would receive a call back within 48 hours.

23. Mr X said he did not receive a response from the Council so tried a different number in August 2020. The member of staff he spoke to told him the number he used in June was wrong as it was only for people who already had a homelessness application open. They said the Council had now logged his case and he would receive a call back within 48 hours, but Mr X said this did not happen.

24. In mid-September 2020, Mr X called the Council’s Careline service. This is the first contact the Council recorded from Mr X. It logged the call as a new homelessness case. Five days later, the Council had not taken any action, so Mr X’s friend rang to chase this up on his behalf. A further five days after this, the Police contacted the Council and said Mr X was homeless and it had concerns about his mental health. The Council’s internal records showed the case was escalated to a senior member of staff at this stage. However, the Council did not take any action or contact Mr X.

25. In December 2020, Mr X had been street homeless for six months and not received any contact from the Council. His sister drove from outside the Council’s area to collect him. The council where his sister lived assessed him as homeless and provided him with accommodation for the next four months, away from the Council’s area where his children lived.

26. Mr X complained to the Council in January 2021. In March 2021 the Council closed Mr X’s case, recording it had ‘lost contact’ with him.

27. In late-April 2021, Mr X received the surgery he needed for his medical condition and moved in with his sister temporarily while he recovered. In May 2021, the Council then began progressing a homelessness application for Mr X because of his complaint. It offered him interim accommodation. Mr X did not accept this offer because he was no longer street homeless and felt too vulnerable to stay in a shared hostel while recovering from surgery. Shortly afterwards he returned to Liverpool and began renting accommodation privately.


The Council’s handling of Mr X’s 2020 homelessness application

28. The Council’s failure to make inquiries, decide what duty it owed Mr X, or let him know its decision, based on the information it had when he first asked for help in 2020, was fault. The Council accepted it was at fault and apologised to Mr X. Our view is the Council should go further to remedy the injustice caused to Mr X. The Council said it failed to respond to Mr X because of “a large increase in homelessness applications due to the COVID pandemic”, which “impacted [the Council’s] processes and affected [its] response times to referrals”. We recognise COVID-19 caused backlogs for councils and may have meant they needed to consider different approaches to prioritising their work. However, the Council’s statutory duties to those who applied for help with homelessness still applied during COVID-19.

29. The Council’s decision to close Mr X’s case in March 2021 was fault, because:

  • it did not try to contact him at all before doing so, which went against its own policy and Government guidance;

  • it was clear from its own records it had failed to follow up on the referral as it should have; and

  • Mr X had in fact contacted the Council two months earlier in making his complaint. This was within 56 days, after which Government guidance says it is reasonable for a council to consider closing an application if the applicant has not responded to contact.

30. Our view is had the Council assessed Mr X as it should have done when he first asked for help in 2020, it would have offered him accommodation, as it later did in 2021. His circumstances were no worse in 2021 than they were in 2020. On the balance of probabilities, our view is Mr X would have accepted interim accommodation had the Council offered it to him in 2020 when he was street homeless. Therefore, we consider fault by the Council caused Mr X to be street homeless for six months. The Council should act to remedy the avoidable distress caused by:

  • the period when Mr X was street homeless and in pain due to his untreated medical condition; and

  • the period following this when he had to live in a different council’s area away from his children in Liverpool.

31. There was no evidence in the Council’s records that Mr X contacted it before September 2020, as he claimed. However, based on the Council’s repeated failure to respond once it recorded the case, our view, on the balance of probabilities, is he did contact it earlier and the Council did not help him.

Mr X’s claims of discrimination

32. Mr X said the Council discriminated against him in its handling of his homelessness application based on his accent because he grew up outside the Council’s area. He thought this because when he rang the Council to ask for help, he said it repeatedly asked him to explain his ‘local connection’ to its area. We cannot decide if an organisation has discriminated against an individual, or if it has breached the Equality Act. Only the courts can do this. However, we can find an organisation at fault for failing to take account of its duties under the Equality Act.

33. Mr X has not claimed discrimination based on any of the protected characteristics listed in the Equality Act. An individual’s accent or place of birth is not a protected characteristic. Therefore, our view is the Equality Act is not relevant to these issues.

34. Nevertheless, we considered whether there was any evidence the Council was biased in its treatment of Mr X. There was no evidence of this, because:

  • under relevant legislation, councils can prioritise those with a ‘local connection’ to their area. The law does not prevent this;

  • there was no evidence the Council considered Mr X’s local connection to the area in 2020 and decided not to progress the referral on this basis. We are satisfied it was at fault because it failed to consider Mr X’s case altogether, not because it decided not to progress it based on the information he provided; and

  • the Council eventually assessed Mr X’s case in 2021 and offered him accommodation rather than refusing this. We are satisfied it would have made the same decision about this had it assessed him earlier.

The Council’s handling of Mr X’s complaint

35. There was fault in how the Council handled Mr X’s complaint because:

  • after Mr X complained in January 2021, the Council failed to respond to his complaint. In May 2021 it started a new homelessness application for Mr X. This was not what he had asked for and did not resolve the issues raised in his complaint about the Council’s actions in 2020;

  • Mr X said the only reason the Council considered a new homelessness application in May 2021 is because he had come to us. Based on the Council’s records, this was not the case, as we can see its consideration began one week before he contacted us. However, it is our view the Council only issued a Stage 1 response to his complaint because he came to us. It took 4 months for the Council to send this response when its policy says this should take 10 working days. It did not update Mr X during this delay; and

  • after Mr X escalated his complaint to Stage 2, the Council took over 12 months to issue its Stage 2 response, instead of the 28 days set out in its policy. It did not update Mr X during this delay or apologise to him for this in its Stage 2 outcome letter. There was also no evidence the Stage 2 investigating officer contacted Mr X to agree the scope of the complaint and a target date for completion.

36. We consider these faults in the Council’s handling of Mr X’s complaint added to the distress caused and meant he spent avoidable time and trouble pursuing the complaint. The Council should act to remedy this injustice. However, we have not recommended the Council should review its complaints handling processes. This is because, since the time of Mr X’s complaint, the Council has accepted there were issues with its complaints handling and engaged with us to review its complaints function.


37. We found the Council was at fault because it:

  • failed to act in line with its statutory duties when Mr X told it he was street homeless in 2020;

  • closed Mr X’s homelessness application in March 2021 without contacting him about this; and

  • did not properly consider Mr X’s complaint about these issues in line with its complaints procedure.

38. Our view is the Council’s fault meant Mr X was street homeless for six months, then had to live outside the Council’s area away from his children for four months. This placed Mr X at risk of harm and caused him significant avoidable distress. He also spent avoidable time and trouble pursuing his complaint.

39. As set out in our Guidance on Remedies, where we find fault has caused someone to be deprived of suitable accommodation, we usually recommend a payment of between £150 and £350 a month to recognise the impact of this. In this case we are satisfied the period for which Mr X was street homeless and the Council failed to meet its duties to assist him was June to November 2020. We consider a remedy of £350 for each month Mr X was street homeless to be appropriate. Our view is he was caused significant distress during this time because:

  • he was in pain due to his untreated medical condition;

  • his mental health was significantly impacted as evidenced by the Police contact with the Council; and

  • he was at risk of harm because both the above factors contributed to his vulnerability while street homeless.

40. From December 2020 until April 2021, Mr X was not street homeless but had to leave the Council’s area, where his children live, to get help from another council. We consider there was less injustice caused during this period so have recommended a separate remedy for this.


41. The Council must consider the report and confirm within three months the action it has taken or proposes to take. The Council should consider the report at its full Council, Cabinet or other appropriately delegated committee of elected members and we will require evidence of this. (Local Government Act 1974, section 31(2), as amended)

42. In addition to the requirements set out above the Council has agreed to take the following actions to remedy the injustice identified in this report.

43. Within one month of the date of this report the Council will:

  • apologise to Mr X for the faults identified and the impact those faults had on him; and

  • pay Mr X a total of £2,600 comprising of:

    • £2,100 to recognise the avoidable distress and risk of harm caused to him for the six months he was street homeless;

    • £400 to recognise the avoidable distress caused to him for the four months he had to live outside the Council’s area and be housed by another council; and

    • £100 to recognise the avoidable time and trouble he spent pursuing his complaint from January 2021 to June 2022 when the Council issued its final response.

44. Within three months of this report, the Council will:

  • share a copy of this report with the Mayor’s cabinet member with portfolio responsibility for Development and Housing;

  • review its procedures for homelessness referrals, and issue reminders to relevant staff, to ensure it meets its statutory duties for homelessness applicants, within the required timescales; and

  • issue reminders to relevant staff about Government guidance, and the Council’s policy, about the contact attempts it should make to a homelessness applicant before it closes their case based on having ‘lost contact’.


45. We have completed our investigation into this complaint. There was fault by the Council which caused Mr X avoidable distress because he was deprived of suitable accommodation and placed at risk of harm. It also caused him avoidable time and trouble spent pursuing his complaint. The Council agreed to remedy this injustice, review relevant procedures, and issue reminders to its staff.

Print this page

LGO logogram

Review your privacy settings

Required cookies

These cookies enable the website to function properly. You can only disable these by changing your browser preferences, but this will affect how the website performs.

View required cookies

Analytical cookies

Google Analytics cookies help us improve the performance of the website by understanding how visitors use the site.
We recommend you set these 'ON'.

View analytical cookies

In using Google Analytics, we do not collect or store personal information that could identify you (for example your name or address). We do not allow Google to use or share our analytics data. Google has developed a tool to help you opt out of Google Analytics cookies.

Privacy settings