Westminster Council found to be at fault in relation to how its delegate handled a homelessness applicant

Date of decision: 26 Sep 2019

What happened

Mr B complained about the way Westminster City Council (the Council) dealt with his homelessness case.

Readers may well recognise the issues of delay and people being passed from pillar to post: these issues are commonplace, and regarded as inevitable, by most councils, these days.

But the LGO thinks not.

In particular, Mr B complained that the Council:

  1. delayed unreasonably in deciding his homelessness application;
  2. delayed unreasonably in finding him suitable accommodation;
  3. lost documents he provided to it (for medical assessment);
  4. was not making enough effort to obtain important information from the police regarding his case;
  5. was not communicating with him properly; and
  6. lost the housing register application he had made the previous September.

What the Housing legislation provides for

When a person presents as homeless, the Relief Duty may apply, and arises, regardless of whether the applicant may be in priority need, but it does not extend to the authority actually having to secure accommodation (although it may choose to do so).

The duty to provide INTERIM accommodation, however, arises once it is decided that a person is in priority need.

The Relief Duty should not extend the period it would otherwise take to decide on priority need – that is not the point of the new duty.

The Housing Act guidance says in most circumstances, assessments will require at least one face to face interview. However, where that is not possible or does not meet the applicant’s needs, assessments could be completed on the telephone or internet or with the assistance of a partner agency.

There are no specific timescales for assessment or producing a Personal Housing Plan under the Relief Duty, but the Guidance stresses the need to take reasonable and sometimes urgent steps to prevent homelessness – and that these may be taken alongside the process of assessment and drawing up the PHP. 

The facts

Mr B became homeless in May 2018 after injuring himself and losing his job. He completed an online assessment on the Council’s website in mid-September 2018 and he was phoned on 13 September 2018. Mr B said he had been sleeping rough for 12 weeks, after losing his job and home. The officer referred the case to the partner agency (the Housing Solutions Team) as it was probable that Mr B was eligible and homeless.

On 8 October 2018 someone contacted Mr B by telephone to arrange an initial assessment. Mr B declined as he was by then working and could not take time off. He did not want an initial assessment and said he would continue working with a different organisation that helped rough sleepers to find accommodation, unless he needed help in the future.

Mr B’s recollection was different to the council’s, the report made clear.

He said that when he first approached the Council in September 2018 he asked to apply ‘for housing’ and also said he was ‘homeless’. He says he completed a housing register application form. He said the receptionist dealt with him and he was not interviewed.

When he received a telephone call he said he asked what he should do but the person did not say to come in for an assessment. He said he was placed in a shelter for 8 weeks by a different organisation. He was then back on the streets until April 2019 when he went back to the council’s partner agency.

The Council had no more records until 12 April 2019 when Mr B re-approached the partner agency as a rough sleeper. He had been sleeping in a hostel for some of the time. He explained again how he had become homeless, that he was in receipt of benefits and was a UK citizen. He also said he had medical problems and provided some evidence of this.

The record said that the person who interviewed Mr B spoke to another member of staff and they said there was not enough evidence to say he was in priority need.

He was provided with a hostel bed on 3 May 2019 for 4 weeks and was given an appointment with a Council caseworker (to be referred to as CW) for 13 May 2019.

On 13 May 2019 he was interviewed by someone from the partner agency, not the caseworker, who was not able to honour the appointment. The interviewer sent an email to his caseworker after the interview explaining some events in Mr B’s past which meant he may be at risk of violence. The interviewer had contacted the police but had not been able to get any information. The interviewer also provided a completed medical assessment including details of his ongoing injury for which Mr B was awaiting surgery.

The Council said it did not provide interim accommodation at this point because it was not satisfied that Mr B might be in priority need, but in fact what they meant seems to be that they didn’t consider the information provided.

On 4 June 2019 the partner agency telephoned the caseworker to chase the matter up. On 5 June 2019 the caseworker discussed the case with a manager for what appeared to be the first time and agreed he may be in priority need. On 14 June 2019 the Council provided him with self-contained interim accommodation.

On 20 June 2019 the Council completed an assessment, accepted the Relief Duty towards him and issued a PHP.

The Council agreed to refer him to two housing projects for private rented accommodation and referred Mr B to a housing project for accommodation. It required Mr B to provide some information.

The caseworker referred him for housing on 21 June 2019 and spoke to Mr B by telephone to explain the relief duty and what might happen when it ended.

The caseworker also confirmed that the Council could discharge its housing duty via housing in the private sector.

The caseworker also contacted the police to obtain information about the risk of violence – Mr B had provided a crime number but the police did not recognise it, for reasons that were not clear. Mr B said another police force was involved.

The ombudsman found as follows:

Between first contact when he was actually homeless, and first action, there were 3 weeks, and that was too long. 

The Council should have carried out an assessment of Mr B’s situation much sooner, considered whether he was eligible for interim accommodation and whether it owed him any further duties.

Mr B believed he had filled in a housing application but the Council’s records did not support this.

Mr B said he requested further help but the Council says he declined assistance as he was in a hostel.

The Council should have communicated much more clearly with Mr B as to what his options were.

The record of 13 September 2018 noted he was street homeless but did not consider whether he might be eligible for interim accommodation or explain what the process was.

The note on 8 October 2018 confirmed he was in a hostel and therefore likely to be homeless but no further advice was given. There was an insoluble conflict of evidence, as to whether Mr B declined any further assistance but the LGO thought it was not clear that Mr B was able to make an informed decision at that point.

Mr B approached the partner organisation for help on 12 April 2019, but he was not interviewed until 13 May 2019. This was too long. The Council may well have been very busy, but over four weeks was too long for a street homeless person to wait for further assistance.

There was no indication what the council then considered or whether it asked Mr B for any more information. When Mr B was interviewed, he provided information crucial to the decision on priority need that he was possibly at risk of violence on the streets. So, it was likely that if he had been interviewed sooner, he would have been offered interim accommodation at an earlier point, the LGO thought.

An email sent to the caseworker the same day as the partner organisation interviewed Mr B could not be regarded as equivalent to a detailed record of what was discussed or considered.

The caseworker then fatally delayed in acting on this information for over three weeks.

Once she actually considered the information, she quickly decided Mr B was in priority need and arranged interim accommodation within two weeks.

She also accepted a relief duty towards Mr B and prepared a PHP.

In reality, she had had sufficient information to make this decision on the 13 May 2019 and the delay in doing so was fault which caused Mr B injustice, as it took longer for him than it should have done to be offered interim accommodation.

In recognition of the delays in dealing with Mr B’s case, which delayed him obtaining interim accommodation by approximately a month to six weeks, the Council was advised to pay Mr B £300 and review its procedures to ensure all homeless applicants are interviewed promptly and that decisions about interim accommodation are made much more quickly.

Please note that CASCAIDr does not specialist in housing law advice but if your problem is about the interface between housing and social care rights, you are welcome to make a referral on our form here: https://www.cascaidr.org.uk/free-advice/

The LGO’s report can be found here: https://www.lgo.org.uk/decisions/housing/homelessness/19-003-747