Homeless families deserve better than council gatekeeping
I’ve been working in the advice sector from the days of the House of Lords case of Street v Mountford - too many years, some may say! And I thought I knew most of the tricks London Boroughs use to deny homeless people their legal rights. But its only when I came to Z2K and started dealing with Westminster City Council’s Housing Options Service on a regular basis that I realised I didn’t know the half of it.
11th February 2021
Anne Killeen, Head of Casework & Support Services
Z2K doesn’t have a legal aid contract and so we refer many of our clients on to solicitors or law centres who can help challenge Westminster City Council’s (WCC) decisions. But we still do a fair few ourselves. And we just got a great result for a family we have been helping over the past 18 months. Interestingly, this was won via the complaints process and Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) rather than the courts.
Mr P and his partner have three children. In February 2018, he approached WCC Housing Options Service (HOS) to explain he was in rent arrears. WCC’s records note he told them the arrears were £10,000 and that he had received a letter from the landlord stating they would begin possession proceedings if they weren’t cleared. A month later, Mr P had another meeting with the HOS. He again told the officer he was in rent arrears of £10,000. Near the end of March 2018, Mr P notified the HOS he had received a formal notice from the landlord. The Council referred him to the homeless casework team for a homeless application to be taken.
Over the next couple of months, Mr P made further attempts to speak with his caseworker and then notified WCC he was facing eviction. The caseworker still did not contact him. In September and October 2018, Mr P asked for his caseworker to contact him urgently as he had attended court and the decision had gone in favour of his landlord and he was required to leave the property in two weeks. He was told to visit the housing service for temporary accommodation (TA) the day before the eviction. WCC also said it told him he would be owed the relief duty and it would offer him assistance with finding private rented accommodation.
In November 2018, Mr P contacted the Council as he had not heard back from his caseworker. WCC’s record noted he said he had been ordered to leave the property by the end of October 2018, but he remained at the property as he had nowhere to go. No action followed. In December 2018, Mr P approached the Council to discuss his case again. He explained there had been no progression with the possession proceedings due to a backlog in the court, but that he expected it would be listed soon. Yet again, nothing was done.
In April 2019, with his application seemingly going nowhere, Z2K made a complaint to WCC regarding its handling of Mr P’s case. In August 2019, he told WCC his landlord had now asked him to leave the accommodation as soon as possible. With our help, WCC finally accepted the main homelessness duty and moved the family into TA at the end of August 2019. Clearly, however, they had been very badly served by their local authority and so we escalated the complaint to Stage Two. Despite repeated requests, WCC did not respond, so last February we referred it to the Ombudsman.
After an investigation lasting several months, the LGSCO made a finding if WCC had considered these matters properly in February 2018, there would have been enough information for it to have decided it owed Mr P the main housing duty in March 2018. In fact, WCC did not accept this duty until August 2019 – a delay of 17 months. The family had endured huge uncertainty and stress throughout this period as a result of WCC’s failings. To remedy the injustice caused by the faults the Ombudsman identified, WCC has agreed to the following:
- Apologise to Mr P for the injustice caused by the faults identified.
- Pay Mr P £2,000 in recognition of the distress, anxiety, and inconvenience caused by the faults identified.
- Pay Mr P £200 in recognition of the distress, and time and trouble caused by the delays in the Council’s complaint handling.
- Liaise with Mr P’s ex-landlord to identify the total arrears incurred between February 2018 and August 2019. The Council should pay the difference between the total arrears and the amount Mr P was able to pay with his Housing Benefit and Universal Credit. The figure has yet to be determined, but it is likely to be substantial.
I don’t doubt the pressure local authority Housing Options Services are under as a result of the Government’s cuts to their budgets. However, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 did come with extra funding attached and in any case, this is a core statutory service. As the Ombudsman found, the quality of service Mr P endured was woeful. From other complaint determinations the LGO publishes, I’d say homeless people are now faced with similar “gatekeeping” by other London Boroughs more and more often. But from what I’ve now seen over the past six years, it is especially so in Westminster. This isn’t just a case of dropping one ball. It is a systemic issue.
I really hope this judgment is a wake-up call to the councillors and senior officers who oversee WCC’s homelessness policies and practice. Westminster’s homeless families deserve much better.