This fact sheet is aimed primarily at people who have problems with a claim for housing benefit (or local housing allowance) and may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman. Housing Benefit is being replaced by Universal Credit. The Ombudsman cannot deal with complaints about housing payments made as part of a Universal Credit claim.
I have a problem with my housing benefit (or local housing allowance). Can the Ombudsman help me?
Yes, as long as your complaint is about the way the council has dealt with your claim.
But if you disagree with a decision the council has made on your claim, such as the amount of benefit you have been awarded, the amount of an overpayment or whether an overpayment can be recovered from you, can ask for an appeal at the first-tier tribunal. We would normally expect you to appeal rather than make a complaint to us.
How do I complain?
You should normally complain to the council first. Councils often have more than one stage in their complaints procedure and you will usually have to complete all stages before we will look at your complaint.
Then, if you are unhappy with the outcome, or the council is taking too long to look into the matter – we think 12 weeks is reasonable – you can complain to us.
If you can consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for?
We consider whether the council has done something wrong in the way it went about dealing with your claim which has caused you problems. We cannot say whether you are entitled to benefit or not. Some of the issues we can look at are:
- delay in processing your claim
- delay in paying you or your landlord the benefit after the claim has been decided
- delay in referring your case to the rent officer
- failure to make a payment on account where appropriate
- paying the benefit to the wrong person (eg direct to you when you have asked the council to pay your landlord)
- delay in dealing with an appeal, for example through failing to recognise your letter as a request for an appeal, or delay in sending your appeal to the independent appeals service
- failure to notify you properly of a decision and of your rights of appeal, or
- unreasonable delay in responding to correspondence (we normally consider it reasonable to allow the council one month to process your claim once it has the necessary information).
What happens if the Ombudsman finds the council was at fault?
We can recommend that the council takes action to put the matter right. This depends on what the complaint is about, but often we will ask the council to:
- determine the ongoing or backdated claim
- pay the benefit due
- refer your claim to the rent officer
- issue or re-issue a decision notice with the correct information and appeal rights, or
- consider an appeal or send it on to the independent appeals service.
We can recommend that the council makes a payment to recognise its fault. The amount we ask for will depend on how you have been affected by what has gone wrong.
- Where we find that there has been unreasonable delay, we usually recommend a payment to recognise the anxiety and inconvenience caused. If you have got into arrears because of the delay, and your landlord is trying to evict you, we may ask for a payment to recognise the additional distress.
- In deciding how much to ask for we can also take account of what you have or haven’t done to help the council. So, for example, if you have taken a long time to provide information which the council needs to make a decision on your claim, or if you know that your benefit will only cover a small part of your rent but still do not pay anything towards it, we may have to reduce the amount we ask for.
We may recommend that the council improves procedures so that the same problems do not occur again.
Examples of some complaints we have considered
Mr M was in receipt of housing benefit which the council paid directly into his bank account. Mr M telephoned the council to say he was changing his bank account. The council made a note of the call but did not make changes at that time. It advised Mr M to send an email with details of the new bank account. The following day Mr M emailed the council with his new bank account details and asked for payments to be made into the new account. The council received the email but did not act on it. Two months later Mr M called the council asking for an update on the payment changes. The council advised it would take 14 days to change the account details. Mr M said that he could not access the payments made into the old account as there was debt. The council suspended the housing benefit claim. It noted three payments totally £570 had been made since Mr M notified it of the change in bank account. The council apologised to Mr M for its delay in changing the bank account. It said it could not make a second housing benefit payment for the same period.
It is not clear exactly what Mr M told the council about access to his original bank account during his initial phone call. However, the council delayed in changing the bank account details after Mr M sent his email. While this is fault, Mr M has received the correct amount of housing benefit. The Ombudsman took the view an apology was an appropriate remedy in this case.
Other sources of information
Our Focus Report on Housing Benefit, published January 2020
See the section on Heating and housing benefits at www.gov.uk/browse/benefits/heating
Shelter has a section on Advice and Support at england.shelter.org.uk
Citizens Advice has a Your Money/Benefits section at www.adviceguide.org.uk
Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please contact us.