Housing benefit claims

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. 

Usually, you should complain to us within 12 months of when you first knew about the problem. If you leave it any later, we may not be able to help.

For more information on how to complain, please read our step by step process.

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 D complained the council delayed processing his housing benefit application and told him he needed to apply to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for support with housing costs. The council accepts it delayed in processing Mr D’s housing benefit application due to high workloads.  It had a target to process applications within 16 working days but failed to do so.  It took the council almost two months to refuse Mr D’s application on the basis that as he was in receipt of Universal Credit (UC) he was not entitled to housing benefit and should contact the DWP to claim housing costs as part of this UC claim.  The council agreed to pay Mr D the amount he would have received as UC housing costs but for its delay and to pay him £100 to acknowledge the distress caused by the delays.  The council also carried out a review of its processes to see how it could more quickly inform applicants to apply to the DWP for housing costs when in receipt of UC.
In June 2019, Ms B asked the council to review her housing benefit entitlement.  The council completed this within three weeks and its records show it considered Ms B was entitled to an increase in housing benefit and that she had been underpaid by around £15,000 for the period from December 2016 to July 2019.  The council suspended Ms B’s housing benefit but did not tell her it had done this. The council asked Ms B to provide evidence from her landlord but she was unable to do this and so sent evidence of rent payments made between August 2017 and July 2019.  The council asked Ms B to provide evidence of rent payments from December 2016 to August 2017. On 2 September the council wrote to Ms B confirming her entitlement to housing benefit at the one-bedroom LHA rate, that the suspension was lifted and a credit would be paid into her bank account.  The council received new information and decided Ms B was only entitled to the one-bedroom LHA rate until July 2019 and an overpayment of £727.70 had occurred.  The council also discovered the previous underpayment had been paid to the wrong bank account  It suspended Ms B’s housing benefit again while it checked whether to re-issue the underpayment. The council wrote to Ms B saying two overpayments of housing benefit of £3,411.39 and £727.20 would be deducted from the £13,490.59 it owed her.  It made a payment of £9,352 to Ms B on 19 September.  Ms B appealed the decision to recover the overpayment of £3,411.39 but the council did not deal with her appeal.
The council was at fault for failing to inform Ms B in writing that it had suspended her housing benefit, for suspending her housing benefit when the revised decision resulted in an increased amount, for failing to lift the suspension when it learnt she had properly paid her rent and for failing to deal with her appeal request.
The council dealt with the appeal request and wrote to Ms B explaining its decision and reinstated her rights of appeal; it apologised and paid Ms B £200 to recognise the distress and frustration caused and it took action to review procedures and ensure officers do not make similar mistakes in the future.

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.

We provide a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result we aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

June 2023

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