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Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (19 016 517)

Category : Housing > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 16 Nov 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms X complains about how the Council handled her move with its Homestart Scheme and damage to her belongings during the move. The Ombudsman finds the Council at fault for not telling Ms X about the 7 day deadline to report damaged items, the time taken to progress the complaint with the removal contractor and for the standard of its complaint handling. The Council has agreed to remedy the injustice caused to Ms X.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I refer to as Ms X, complains about how the Council handled her move with its Homestart Scheme and damage to her belongings during the move. Ms X raises the following:
    • The removal contractors used inappropriate language around her and her children when carrying out the removals.
    • The removal contractors damaged belongings and there were some items missing.
    • She has not received an acceptable offer of compensation from the Council or removal contractor despite the time spent pursuing this.

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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. The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), as amended)
  3. 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. As part of this investigation I considered the complaint made by Ms X and the responses from the Council. I considered the information supplied by Ms X. I made enquires to the Council and considered the information received in response. I send a draft of this decision to Ms X and the Council.

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What I found

  1. The Council’s Homestart Scheme (the Scheme) helps Council and housing association tenants and severely overcrowded households move out of London. The Scheme helps people move into private rented accommodation in other parts of the country that they might have a connection with.
  2. Through the Scheme the Council may offer help with removals to their new home.
  3. The Council has a three stage complaints procedure. At Stage one a Council officer or their manager will investigate the complaint. At Stage two the head of the relevant section will investigate the complaint and response within 15 working days. At Stage three the corporate complaints team will carry out an independent investigation and work with the relevant Director or Executive Director.

Background

  1. On 9 August 2018 Ms X moved to a new house through the Council’s Homestart Scheme. The Council agreed to remove Ms X’s belongings and contracted a removal company to move her possessions to her new property. However, on the day she arrived at her new property she discovered the removal contractor had damaged a bunk bed and Ms X raised this with the removal contractor.
  2. Ms X also signed an inventory before the removal contractor moved her possessions and after they had left. Ms X says she did not realise the inventory related to the condition of items and the removal contractor told her it just related to checking items on and off the van.
  3. After the contractors left Ms X says she discovered other items had been damaged by the removal contractors and items were also missing.
  4. On 13 August 2018 Ms X says she telephoned the Council to report the removal contractors had damaged some of her items. The Council told Ms X to make a complaint to the removal contractor.
  5. On 10 September 2018 Ms X sent a letter of complaint to the Council about the service she received from the removal contractor and the damaged and missing items. Ms X says the removal contractor damaged the following items:
    • Bunk bed was severely scratched in several places.
    • Unit shelf LED lighting broken and frame scratched, it also had damaged wires.
    • Wardrobe scratched and chipped in several places, lighting on left side broken and no longer working.
    • Bedside cabinet severely scratched.
    • Chest of drawers scratched and a big chunk of wood missing.
    • Ottomen broken and a leg has fallen off.
    • TV unit scratched.
    • Dining table scratched.
    • Computer table scratched.
  6. Ms X also reported a folding table, a hard drive and a wire connection for her sofa were missing. The Council passed Ms X’s complaint onto the removal contractor.
  7. The removal contractor responded to say it would not continue with this claim. It said there were no items left in the van. The damaged items are still useable so Ms X should not be reimbursed for the full cost. The removal contractor also said Ms X signed an inventory and had 7 days to report the damages to their insurers and she missed this deadline.
  8. Ms X responded to the Council in early October 2018. Ms X said when she arrived at her new property a workman from the removal contractor said something derogatory about the area she had moved to. She explained she signed the inventory as the removal workers told her it had nothing to do with the condition of the items. She said the contractors damaged items as they did not fully disassemble the items before removing them from her property and carrying them out of the building. Ms X said she only mentioned the bed to the removal contractor on her move in day as she was unaware of the damage to other items at this time. She also said no one informed her of the 7 day policy for reporting damages but did telephone the Council three days later to report the damage.
  9. The Council passed on Ms X’s concerns to the removal contractor who responded to say it would only look at the damage to the bunk bed as Ms X reported this within the 7 day deadline.
  10. Ms X continued to correspond with the Council about how she could proceed and sent several chasing emails to the Council. In January 2019, the Council arranged for the removal contractor to send Ms X a claim form which she completed and sent back to the removal contractor so its insurer could consider the matter.
  11. In April 2019, the insurer for the removal contractor responded and said its policy does not replace new for old and considers the age, quality and possibility of repair of items. Also, it could only consider the damaged bunk bed as this was the only item Ms X reported before the 7 day deadline. The removal contractor offered Ms X £200 for the loss of appearance of the item as it considered the Ms X could still use the bunk bed.
  12. Ms X contacted the Council as she thought the offer from the removal contractor’s insurer was too low considering the damages to her possessions. Ms X sent several chasing emails to the Council in April 2019 and May 2019 as she had not received a response. The Council got back to Ms X in June 2019 and encouraged her to ask the removal contractor for more money. The Council also said it was waiting for the removal contractor to provide the Council with a response.

Ms X’s complaint

  1. On 4 June 2019 Ms X said she was not happy with the progress or time it has taken to deal with this complaint. She asked the Council to consider her complaint through its complaints procedure. On 19 June 2019 Ms X submitted a formal complaint to the Council about the time it has taken to pursue this with the removal contractor. Ms X also said she had received no apology for the unprofessional behaviour from the removal contractor’s workers.
  2. On 21 June 2019 the Council acknowledged Ms X’s complaint and told her she should receive a response by 12 July 2019. On 10 July 2019 the Council told Ms X it would not be able to meet its deadline.
  3. On 5 August 2019 the Council provided a Stage one response to Ms X. The Council said it had supported Ms X for the last year with her complaint against the removal company. However, the removal company claim Ms X did not report the damaged items within 7 days. The Council told Ms X to take her complaint to the removals Ombudsman.
  4. On 8 August Ms X responded and asked the Council to escalate her complaint to Stage two of its complaint procedure. Ms X said:
    • The Council contracted the removal company so the Council should deal with the complaint.
    • The removal contractor or the Council did not tell her about the 7 day deadline for reporting damaged items.
    • She telephoned the Council to report damage to other items after three days of moving into her property.
  5. The Council told Ms X it would provide its Stage two response by 30 September 2019, however it did not meet this deadline. Ms X chased up the Council on two occasions.
  6. The Council provided its Stage two response to Ms X on 9 October 2019. The Council said it could not conclude whether officers made Ms X aware of the 7 day deadline to report damages. It has now put in place new procedures for Housing staff to ensure they pass the removal contractor’s terms onto clients.
  7. The Council said as Ms X signed the inventory the removal contractor confirmed it could not act on the damages she reported later.
  8. Ms X remained dissatisfied with the Council’s response and on 22 October 2019 asked the Council to escalate her complaint the Stage three. Ms X said she initially refused to sign the inventory as she was not happy with the service from the removal contractor. She said she only signed the inventory as the removal contractor told her the inventory related to the time the removal contractor workers were at her property. She said the removal contractor told her there would be a separate form for damages. Ms X said the Council did not tell her about the 7 day deadline to report damages when she initially reported the damage by telephone. Ms X asked the Council to make an acceptable offer to compensate her for the damaged possessions.
  9. The Council told Ms X it would provide its Stage three response by 12 November 2019. On 13 November 2019, the Council told Ms X it would try to get the response completed soon. Ms X chased the Council up on 28 November 2019 as she had not received the Stage three response.
  10. The Council provided its final response to Ms X’s complaint on 5 December 2019. The Council said:
    • It asked its removal contractor to investigate the behaviour of its staff but found no evidence workers acted inappropriately.
    • Going forward it will ensure staff are aware of the conditions in reporting damage after removal.
    • Although Ms X signed the inventory it does recognise the distress and anxiety she experienced and offered £500 as a gesture of goodwill.

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Analysis

Behaviour of the removal contractors

  1. Ms X alleges the workers from the removal contractor behaved inappropriately and made inappropriate comments about where she was moving to. The Council asked the removal contractor to consider these concerns. The removal contractor said it had spoken to the workers involved and could not find evidence they acted inappropriately.
  2. Without further evidence to support either Ms X’s or the Council’s version of events I cannot make a finding.

Damage to Ms X’s belongings

  1. Ms X is seeking more compensation for her damaged and missing belongings than was offered to her. It is not the Ombudsman’s role to rule on matters of compensation caused by alleged fault by the Council: that is a matter for insurers and, in the event of a dispute, the courts. It is normal procedure for persons suffering damages caused by a council or its contractors to submit an insurance claim against the Council. If the Council or a company the Council contracts to provide services on its behalf denies liability for the damages or its insurers reject her claim Ms X may seek a remedy in the court.
  2. Given the insurers have made Ms X an offer of compensation which she is not satisfied with, I consider it would be possible for Ms X to make a legal claim. I am not, therefore, going to consider that part of the complaint further.
  3. The Council was at fault for not telling Ms X about the 7 day deadline to report damaged and missing items. I am satisfied this caused injustice to Ms X. Had the Council told Ms X of the 7 day deadline, on balance, she would likely have provided a breakdown of the damaged and missing items within the deadline. When Ms X telephoned the Council a few days after moving the Council could have told Ms X of the 7 day deadline for reporting damages.
  4. The insurer said it only considered the damage to Ms X’s bunkbed as she reported this item as damaged on the day of her move. As she did not report the other damaged items within 7 days it did not consider these items when deciding its £200 offer of compensation.
  5. I cannot say what the outcome would have been had Ms X reported all damaged and missing items within 7 days. However, the insurers may have at least considered these items when assessing compensation. By not telling Ms X of the 7 day deadline she lost the opportunity to have these items included in the insurance claim.
  6. The Council was also at fault for the time taken in pursuing the matter with the removal contractor. From the evidence provided the Council was in discussion with the removal contractor from September 2018 until June 2019 about Ms X’s claim. During this time Ms X had to chase up the Council several times for a response and there were periods where the Council did not get back to her. Because of the time spent pursuing this Ms X raised a complaint with the Council.
  7. I recognise the Council has offered Ms X £500 as a goodwill gesture to recognise the distress and anxiety caused. It has also put in place new procedures for Housing staff to make sure the removal contractor’s terms and conditions, including the 7 days deadline for reporting damaged items, are passed onto clients. However, I do not think this payment goes far enough given the loss of opportunity and uncertainty about the outcome of the insurance claim had the Council told Ms X about the 7 day deadline for reporting damages.
  8. In coming to a suitable payment figure I have considered the amount of items the insurer did not consider due to Ms X missing the 7 day deadline for reporting, the length of time Ms X was pursuing this with the Council, and the fact the Council had the opportunity to tell Ms X about the deadline for reporting when she telephoned it after moving to report damaged items.

Complaint handling

  1. The Council was at fault for how it handled Ms X’s complaint. At Stage one the Council told Ms X it would respond by 12 July 2019. While I accept the Council told Ms X it would not meet this deadline it did not provide her with a further timeframe to receive a response.
  2. The Council also told Ms X to approach the furniture Ombudsman which was the wrong Ombudsman given the Council contracted out these services on its behalf.
  3. At Stage two the Council had 15 working days to provide a response, however it took 45 working days to send Ms X its Stage two response. I do recognise the Council told Ms X it would provide this by 30 September 2019, which is more than 15 working days, however the Council missed this deadline. Ms X had to chase the Council for a response to her complaint at Stage two.
  4. At Stage three the Council again missed its response deadline of 12 November 2019. Ms X had to chase the Council up and received her Stage three response on 5 December 2019.

Agreed action

  1. Within 4 weeks of my final decision the Council agreed to carry out the following and provide evidence to the Ombudsman it has done so:
    • Apologise to Ms X for not informing her of the 7 day deadline to report damaged and missing items to the removal contractor and for the delays in pursuing the matter with the removal contractor.
    • Pay Ms X £700 to reflect the loss of opportunity and uncertainty in not being advised of the 7 day deadline and to recognise the distress caused by the time taken to pursue this matter with the removal contractor. The Council can deduct the £500 offered to Ms X already if it has already paid this to Ms X.
    • Apologise to Ms X for the delays in progressing her complaint through the Council’s complaints procedure.
    • Pay Ms X £150 for the Council’s failures in complaint handling and for the time and trouble spent in pursuing her complaint.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and found fault by the Council which caused injustice to Ms X. The Council has agreed to the above actions to remedy the injustice caused.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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