London Borough of Camden (22 016 404)

Category : Housing > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 14 Sep 2023

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Council was at fault for poor communication, delay accepting homelessness duties, and providing unsuitable B&B accommodation to Ms X when she was homeless with her young baby. The Council has agreed to apologise, make payments to Ms X, and act to improve its services.

The complaint

  1. Ms X complained about the Council’s handling of her homeless application. In particular she says the Council:
      1. Communicated poorly and failed to respond to requests for contact, including leaving her waiting for more than seven hours in its offices with her baby
      2. Delayed providing interim accommodation then provided unsuitable interim accommodation in hotels outside the borough
      3. Required her to move between hotels frequently
      4. Contacted her mother despite knowing she was at risk of domestic abuse from her
      5. Delayed accepting homelessness duties to her
  2. As a result, Ms X says she experienced avoidable distress and anxiety, and her mental health has deteriorated. Further, that living in hotels caused financial loss and left her isolated with her baby in unsuitable accommodation.

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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 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered the complaint and the information Ms X provided.
  2. I made written enquiries of the Council and considered its response along with relevant law and guidance.
  3. I referred to the Ombudsman’s Guidance on Remedies, a copy of which can be found on our website.
  4. Ms X and the organisation had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

Homelessness law and guidance

  1. 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.
  2. 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. (Housing Act 1996, section 188)
  3. The law says councils must ensure all accommodation provided to homeless applicants is suitable for the needs of the applicant and members of his or her household.  This duty applies to interim accommodation and accommodation provided under the main homelessness duty.  (Housing Act 1996, section 206 and Homelessness Code of Guidance 17.2)
  4. Councils must assess whether accommodation is suitable for each household individually. Whether accommodation is suitable will depend on the relevant needs, requirements and circumstances of the homeless person and their household. (Homelessness Code of Guidance 17.4 & 17.9)
  5. Councils must complete an assessment if they are satisfied an applicant is homeless or threatened with homelessness. Councils must notify the applicant of the assessment. This assessment must include:
      1. The circumstances that have caused them to become homeless or threatened with homelessness
      2. Their housing needs
      3. Their support needs (Housing Act 1996, section 189A and Homelessness Code of Guidance paragraphs 11.7)
  6. 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.
  7. If councils are satisfied applicants are homeless and eligible for assistance, they must take reasonable steps to secure accommodation. This is called the relief duty. When a council decides this duty has come to an end, it must notify the applicant in writing. The relief duty lasts a maximum of 56 days. (Housing Act 1996, section 189B)
  8. If, at the end of the relief duty, a council is satisfied an applicant is homeless, eligible for assistance, and has a priority need the council has a duty to secure that accommodation is available for their occupation. This is called the main housing duty. (Housing Act 1996, section 193)
  9. 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)
  10. Where the council owes or has owed certain housing duties to an applicant, it must protect the applicant’s personal property if there is a risk it may be lost or damaged. A council may make a reasonable charge for storage and reserve the right to dispose of the property if it loses contact with the applicant. (Housing Act 1996, section 211, Homelessness Code of Guidance chapter 20)

What happened

  1. Ms X first approached the Council for help in June 2022. She was pregnant. She told the Council she had left an abusive relationship. At that time, Ms X was living in her mother’s house. She told the Council that this was only possible because her mother was out of the country. When she returned, Ms X would have to leave.
  2. The Council booked an assessment with Ms X for the end of June. Ms X gave birth at the end of June and as a result missed her scheduled assessment with the Council. In September, the Council closed the case on the basis it had lost contact with Ms X.
  3. Ms X returned to the Council on 17 October 2022. She went to the Council’s offices in person. The Council accepts that despite making herself known to the reception staff several times and attempting to call the housing team, no one came to see her for over seven hours. At the end of the day, the Council met with Ms X. Its record of the discussion says:
    • Ms X reported that her mother had now returned and wanted Ms X to leave
    • it asked Ms X for her mother’s contact details in order to confirm her homelessness which she provided
    • it advised her to “complete a new application before tomorrow when interim accommodation can be provided pending a duty appointment”
  4. In response to her complaint, the Council said it also offered Ms X interim accommodation in a hotel which she refused.
  5. The next day, the Council spoke to Ms X’s mother on the phone, who confirmed that Ms X could not return to the property. The Council booked Ms X for an assessment in mid-November.
  6. Its records say it completed a “suitability form” with Ms X over the phone. This said:
    • Ms X had physical and mental health conditions
    • She had experienced domestic abuse from her ex-partner and from her mother
  7. The Council arranged interim accommodation for Ms X in a hotel outside the borough. The Council told Ms X about this by email. Ms X called the Council’s emergency duty team that night, which told her about the hotel reservation.
  8. On 19 October, Ms X emailed the Council. She asked how long she would have to stay in the hotel. She said she felt isolated and scared being so far away from the borough. She explained that she had a lot of appointments for herself and her baby and it was difficult to travel.
  9. The next day, the Council told Ms X she was on its transfer list for a move to self-contained accommodation. It explained that demand for this was high and there were households who had been waiting longer who would be prioritised.
  10. In early November, Ms X told the Council her baby’s health was poor. Now in a different hotel, she said it was a two hour journey for her to get to the GP. She asked if they could move any closer to the borough and if her assessment appointment could be any sooner. Ms X chased for a response two days later.
  11. On 15 November, Ms X contacted the Council again. She was now in a fourth hotel. She said the constant moving was affecting her and her baby’s health. She said having no access to a fridge or cooking facilities was costly and affecting her diet. Her baby should be starting on solid food soon but she had nowhere to prepare this. The Council completed its assessment of Ms X the next day over the phone.
  12. On 23 November, Ms X contacted the Council. She said she had to check out of her current (fifth) hotel and no one had told her where to go the next day. Ms X’s support worker also contacted the Council. The support worker told the Council Ms X had been diagnosed with post-natal depression and asked if she could stay in one place for more than a week.
  13. On 28 November, Ms X again contacted the Council. She had to check out that day and no one had told her where to go that night.
  14. On 30 November, the Council accepted the relief duty and provided Ms X with a copy of her personalised housing plan.
  15. In early December, Ms X contacted the Council again. She said she was having to keep most of her belongings in her car because of the constant moving. Her possessions were becoming mouldy as a result. She asked if the Council could help her with storage. She once again asked if she and her baby could stay somewhere with less travel. Her baby was unwell again and Ms X worried about doing so much travelling to appointments in the winter weather.
  16. The Council’s records show it checked but there was no available self-contained accommodation from its usual providers. It confirmed she was on its transfer list. About Ms X’s belongings, it said “the council has a duty to place belongings in storage if we accept a main homelessness duty…Before that we do not have a storage duty”.
  17. On 8 December, Ms X emailed the Council. She said her referral for support with her post-natal depression was refused because of the recent and frequent moves out of the borough. She said she was due to check out of her hotel the next day at 12pm and it was now after 6pm and she didn’t know where she was supposed to go. She said she was spending too much money on takeaway food and travel, affecting her ability to budget effectively.
  18. In mid-December, the Council arranged for Ms X to stay in a hotel within the borough. She remained there until March 2023.
  19. In mid-January 2023, Ms X’s support worker arranged a Team Around the Family meeting. The support worker said staying in one place and being within the borough had helped Ms X access mental health services.
  20. In February, Ms X emailed the Council. She pointed out the 56-day relief duty had ended and asked for an update on her case. She emailed again in early March. She said she had told the Council several times that hotels were not suitable for her.
  21. In March, the Council offered Ms X temporary accommodation in a self-contained property. Ms X moved in on 14 March. On 20 March, the Council accepted the main housing duty to Ms X.

My findings

  1. I set out my findings on this complaint in the order they appear in paragraph one.


  1. The Council has accepted fault for leaving Ms X in its reception area with her young baby for over seven hours. This caused Ms X avoidable distress, which is an injustice.
  2. The Council has also accepted fault for failing to contact Ms X on 18 October as it agreed to do. This added to Ms X’s distress and frustration, which is an injustice.
  3. There are also repeated instances between October and December of Ms X asking the Council to tell her where she would be staying the next day because the Council failed to tell her. On one occasion, she had to ask where to go that night. In the circumstances, this was fault. It caused Ms X avoidable distress and uncertainty at an already difficult time, which is an injustice.

Interim accommodation – delay

  1. The Council said Ms X refused its offer of interim accommodation on 17 October. Ms X says it made no such offer.
  2. On balance, I find the Council did not offer interim accommodation to Ms X on 17 October. Its notes say Ms X should complete a new application before the next day, when it could provide interim accommodation. This is a clear statement that interim accommodation would not be available until the next day. The Council should have provided interim accommodation on 17 October and its failure to do so was fault.
  3. Ms X had to return to her mother’s house where she felt at risk and where she was not welcome. She missed an opportunity to be accommodated for one night. This is an injustice to Ms X.

Interim accommodation – suitability

  1. In response to my enquiries, the Council said the shortage of accommodation in its area means that “on many, if not most, days from October 2022 there was no supply of annexe (self-contained) accommodation at all, regardless of location.” It said this means the Council must rely on hotels to meet its duty to homeless people.
  2. All accommodation provided by the Council to homeless applicants must be suitable for the needs of the specific household. There is no evidence the Council considered what would be suitable for Ms X in her specific circumstances. It did not complete the part of its suitability form which specifies how far from the borough the applicant can be. This was fault.
  3. Ms X was a new parent of a young baby. She has physical and mental health conditions which impact on her ability to travel with her baby. On balance, I find that hotels outside the borough were not suitable interim accommodation for Ms X for anything more than a few days to a week.
  4. In any event, the law says that bed and breakfast accommodation should only be used as a last resort to house families with children and for no more than six weeks.
  5. Ms X was in bed and breakfast accommodation for 21 weeks. This was 15 weeks beyond the 6-week limit. I accept the Council’s evidence that it had nothing else available to it and that it was not for lack of trying on its part that it had to use hotel accommodation. Nevertheless, this service failure was fault.
  6. This caused Ms X significant injustice. She could not access the mental health services she needed while out of the borough. She had no way to store or prepare food for herself or her baby. She had to travel significant distances to attend GP and hospital appointments. As well as the physical and psychological impact, this also caused Ms X financial loss.

Interim accommodation – frequent moves

  1. From 18 October to 15 December, the Council moved Ms X to different hotels at least seven times. This means for two months, Ms X and her baby moved to a different hotel, in a different part of London, an average of once every week. One stay was just three nights.
  2. Ms X’s support worker asked the Council several times if Ms X could stay in one place for longer. They were concerned about the impact on Ms X’s mental health of living in a constant state of uncertainty. They said it was aggravating her post-natal depression. This is a significant injustice to Ms X.
  3. From December, the Council provided interim accommodation in a hotel within the borough. Ms X did not have to move again until the Council offered her self-contained accommodation. While hotel accommodation remained unsuitable, this was an improvement. The support worker reported that Ms X could access mental health support and was making progress. She was closer to her support network and health care services.
  4. The Council should have sought an arrangement such as this sooner. Not to do so was fault.

Domestic abuse

  1. Ms X says the Council knew she was at risk of domestic abuse from her mother and that it should not have contacted her mother on 18 October.
  2. The first evidence in the Council’s records that Ms X was at risk of abuse from her mother is in the suitability form it completed on 18 October. This was after the Council had spoken to Ms X’s mother to confirm she was homeless. Before this, there is no evidence Ms X told the Council about any risk to her from her mother. Nor is there any evidence the Council already had this information from Ms X’s approach in June.
  3. Therefore, I do not find the Council acted with fault in contacting Ms X’s mother to confirm she was homeless. It asked Ms X for her mother’s contact details. If she was concerned about a risk if the Council made contact, it was important that she tell it so.

Delay accepting duties

  1. It took the Council one month from Ms X’s approach in October to arrange an assessment. It is clear from the Council’s records that this was its next available appointment. However, this service failure was fault.
  2. It took the Council a further two weeks after the assessment to accept the relief duty and provide Ms X her personalised housing plan. This delay was also fault.
  3. The Council should have been able to assess and accept a duty to Ms X by the end of October at the latest. Overall, therefore, it delayed accepting a duty by one month.
  4. The relief duty lasts for 56 days, at which point the Council must decide whether it owes the main housing duty. If not for its delay accepting the relief duty, the Council should have accepted the main housing duty at the end of December. Having accepted the relief duty in late November, the Council should have accepted the main housing duty by the end of January 2023. It did not do so until late March. The delay of over two months was fault.
  5. When it accepted the main duty, Ms X had moved into suitable accommodation. However, had the Council accepted the main housing duty at the end of December, she would then have had a statutory right to review the suitability of the hotel. The Council’s delay denied her access to this statutory right, which is an injustice.
  6. In early December 2022, the Council told Ms X that it did not have any duty to protect her property until it accepted a main housing duty. This was inaccurate information and was fault. The duty to protect property applies if the Council owes, among others, the interim accommodation duty and the relief duty. It owed Ms X both these duties at the time. The Council had reason to believe there was a risk of damage to Ms X’s property and that she could not protect it. It therefore had a duty to act to prevent or mitigate the damage to that property. Its failure to do so was fault. As a result, Ms X’s belongings remained in her car over winter, affected by damp and mould. This is an injustice to Ms X.

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Agreed action

  1. To remedy the injustice to Ms X from the faults I have identified, the Council should:
    • Apologise to Ms X in writing
    • Pay Ms X £3,200 being:
          1. £175 per week for the six weeks she was in unsuitable hotel accommodation outside the borough, for £1,050
          2. £100 per week for the 14 further weeks she was in unsuitable hotel accommodation within the borough, for £1,400
          3. £750 in recognition of the avoidable distress, uncertainty, damaged property and missed opportunities caused by the failures in communication and delays accepting duties.
  2. The Council should take this action within four weeks of my final decision.
  3. The Council should also take the following action to improve its services:
    • Share a copy of this decision with staff in the relevant departments to identify learning from this complaint.
    • Remind relevant staff that even where it must rely on B&B to meet its accommodation duty, it should consider and record whether particular applicants need accommodation in or near the borough for it to be suitable.
    • Ensure it tells homeless applicants in short-term B&B placements who need to move to another hotel where they will be going with at least 24 hours’ notice.
    • Identify a means of ensuring oversight of the relevant dates and deadlines of a homeless application, including when the 56-day relief period will end and a main housing duty decision is due.
    • Provide training or guidance to relevant staff on the circumstances in which the Council has a duty to protect the property of a homeless applicant.
  4. The Council should tell the Ombudsman about the action it has taken within three months of my final decision.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. There was fault by the Council. The action I have recommended is a suitable remedy for the injustice caused.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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