Ombudsman highlights inadequate response to remedying complaint

The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) has criticised a London council after it did not carry out the remedy it had previously agreed to provide.

An investigation report highlights how London Borough of Lewisham failed to put things right for a complainant, causing her to complain to the LGO for a second time to get her issue resolved.

In 2015 the LGO had received a complaint from a woman about how Lewisham council tried to reclaim what it said were overpaid housing and council tax benefits.

Following that investigation the council agreed to apologise to the woman, deal with her appeal properly and review its procedures.

The previous investigation found the council had not told the woman about her appeal rights.  The woman discovered her right of appeal late and so was not able to  appeal against the council’s decision until one day after the 13-month period for forwarding appeals to the Social Entitlement Chamber. The council did not forward her appeal request. Instead it told the woman she was out of time and so it would not act on her appeal.  This was fault and left the woman with the uncertainty of not knowing whether the Chamber would have entertained her appeal.

At the time, the LGO concluded its investigations after the council agreed to take actions to remedy the complaint.  However the council did not carry out the actions it agreed.

Instead of dealing properly with the woman’s appeal, it mistakenly took recovery action, instructing enforcement agents to recover the debt.

The council later recalled the enforcement agents and has now removed their fees.

The council also wrote to the woman demanding payment of the housing benefit debt.  It has since accepted that this too was a mistake and later decided to write-off the payment.

Following further correspondence with the Ombudsman, the council has also agreed to write off the council tax debt.

The most recent LGO investigation found the council at fault for not completing the recommendations it originally agreed to.  It was also at fault for its confused and sometimes inaccurate responses to both the woman and the Ombudsman.  These faults meant the woman had to wait for longer than necessary to have the matters resolved and she is still waiting for an apology for the council’s original failings.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said:

“When a council agrees to my recommendations I expect it to fulfil them within the time limits I specify – not doing so erodes public trust in that council.

“I have the same powers as the High Court to obtain information. When councils respond to us they should take the same care to give us complete and accurate information as they would in court proceedings. I take the matter seriously when councils don’t provide accurate and timely information and believe it is in the public interest to highlight this case."

The LGO has recommended Lewisham council apologise to the woman, introduce a procedure for ensuring it completes actions agreed with the LGO and review its procedure for debt recovery.  It should also pay the woman £250 to recognise the injustice caused by its actions. LGO will make further contact with the council to ensure that it has completed these actions within specified timescales.

Article date: 07 July 2016

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