The Local Government Ombudsman has issued a quite withering decision on a complaint about Barnet Council’s failure to make a formal decision on repeated homeless applications by a homeless woman.
The woman became homeless in January 2015 after eviction by a private landlord and approached Barnet.
Barnet provided her with a place in a hostel for three nights, but simply told her that they didn’t have to assist her. No section 184 decision was issued.
She approached the council a further four times over the following 15 months, but on each occasion she was told she was not a priority need and just given advice on contacting charities for support. No section 184 decision was issued on any of these occasions.
During this period, the woman was street homeless over the winter months, and spent nights sofa surfing with friends or sleeping on the night bus. At one point she was hospitalised for 10 days due to a severe asthma attack.
As no section 184 decision had been provided, no section 202 review request could be made. Whether Barnet’s view that the woman was not in priority need was accurate or not, she had no means of challenging it.
After complaints to Barnet, a complaint was made to the LGO. Barnet’s response to the LGO was that
It funded a homeless charity to provide advice and assistance to people who were not owed the full homeless duty. The charity housed 156 people in the private sector in 2015/16. Ms A did not want to claim welfare benefits which would have enabled her to access housing through the rent deposit scheme. (A rent deposit scheme is where a council, or here the charity acting on its behalf, provides or guarantees a deposit to a private landlord.)
Ms A had not lost appeal rights, they were delayed by the failure to issue a written decision. It is unlikely that she would have been offered interim accommodation.
And, astonishingly (in the sense that they actually put this in a response to the LGO and thought it was OK – not astonishing that they did what they did, as many councils do), Barnet said it:
“fully understands its duties in relation to the Housing Act 1996 and will always issue decisions when requested ……. The Housing Options Service sees in excess of 1,000 customers each month who are seeking advice and assistance …….. frontline Housing Options officers are not generic customer service officers and are trained in homelessness and housing advice and they are experienced in being able to determine whether a customer is likely to be in priority need. Ms A was assessed by a Housing Options officer as she was not going to be in priority need and she was given advice on her options and that she did not meet the statutory criteria for housing assistance.
If we were to issue formal decisions to all those seeking housing assistance, there would be significant challenges with the number of Housing Needs officers being required to conduct such a high volume of assessments and write the subsequent decision letters”.
This being the ‘we are far too busy to comply with our obligations’ defence. Which also manages to contradict its own first sentence.
The Ombudsman was not impressed:
Ms A was homeless and so approached the Council for help. This triggered a duty to investigate whether it should provide accommodation. The Council provided some advice and referrals to a charity which could have housed Ms A in the private sector and a hostel place under the SWEP. But it failed to issue a written decision although legally required to do so. This is fault. As a consequence, Ms A was denied review and appeal rights to which she was legally entitled. She potentially lost out on interim accommodation.
Barnet recommended to pay £300 compensation to Ms A and £200 to her father for his trouble in bringing the complaint.
Barnet to review this report and ensure that in future homeless applications are taken and decision letters are issued in all appropriate cases.
After receiving the decision, Barnet had apologise and found Ms A temporary accommodation.
A reminder, if one were needed by councils (and Barnet is far from alone in this practice), that a section 184 decision in writing must be issued on all homeless applications (and that homeless applications are not dependant on having the right forms and documents completed first).