Proper timescales must be followed when deciding homelessness applications, LGO reminds councils

Councils are being reminded to decide homeless applications promptly and effectively by the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), following an investigation about a London council.

It comes after a woman with mental health needs spent more than a year waiting for the London Borough of Hounslow to determine her homelessness status.

The council should have taken around 15 weeks to come to a conclusion about the woman, but instead took 62 weeks to reach a decision. During that time she raised concerns about being subject to sexual harassment and assault while in bed and breakfast interim accommodation.

When the woman approached the council for homeless assistance in November 2011 it refused to provide interim accommodation, because it did not believe she was in priority need, despite having significant information on its files about her mental health issues. The woman had been sectioned to a mental health unit three times in a three month period, told the council that she had recently been diagnosed with a personality disorder and had been prescribed anti-psychotic drugs.

The council eventually provided her with interim accommodation four weeks later, after she said she was fleeing domestic violence. During its investigations officers contacted the woman’s ex-partner, about whom she had made the claims, putting her at increased risk.

The council then decided that the woman was not in priority need but did not reach a decision on whether the woman had become intentionally homeless. This meant it was unclear what duty the council owed. The woman asked for a review of the decision.

The law says the council should reach a decision on review within eight weeks, however the council took seven and a half months to complete the review and decide the woman was in priority need. It wrongly passed the case back to the original decision maker to decide what duty it owed her and took a further six months to reach a decision.

The council accepted it had a duty to house the woman in January 2013 and she was permanently rehomed in November that year. She complained to Hounslow council about her treatment but having never received a response, she finally contacted the LGO.

The LGO investigation found significant delays in the council’s process for dealing with the request to review her situation, and very little evidence the council did anything to progress her case. The council took 62 weeks to decide the woman’s homelessness application with no explanation for such a significant delay.

The investigation found that had there been no delays in the process the council would have been in the position of accepting the woman’s homelessness application by February 2012, and then she would have been rehoused by December 2012 at the latest.

The council also failed to respond to her complaint.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said:

"Hounslow council missed many opportunities to put things right at an earlier stage for the woman and she should not have been left in temporary accommodation for as long as she was. However I am pleased it has accepted my recommendations in full and is already making steps to improve its services to homeless people in its area.

“I appreciate the challenge councils face in response to homelessness and the pressures their resources are under but, as is evident in this case, councils must remember they can be dealing with the most vulnerable members of society who are reliant on them for the most basic of needs. Councils must ensure they are following the correct procedures in deciding applications.”

The LGO has recommended Hounslow council apologise to the woman and provide training for staff about current legislation and complaints handling.

The council should also pay the woman £1,100 for the stress and anxiety caused by delays in dealing with her homelessness application and a further £100 for the anxiety of not providing interim accommodation in November 2011. The council should also pay the woman £250 for her time and trouble in pursuing the complaint.

Hounslow council has agreed to the recommendations and has appointed an Independent Housing Review Officer who is now responsible for carrying out all homeless reviews for the council.

Article date: 08 October 2015