Homelessness Reduction Bill to receive Royal Assent - and an example of why it's needed

23.03.2017

The Homelessness Reduction Bill received its third reading in the House of Lords today.

Photograph of Houses of Parliament

For something so momentous - the most radical change to English homelessness law in 40 years - today's events were rather anti-climatic. No amendments were tabled and it took less than a minute to go through the Lords.

What next?

The Bill now becomes bedtime reading for Her Majesty (well that's how I like to think of it!) and it'll shortly become law.

So Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 will shortly read like this [NB: a newer version of this document is now available here]:

See my previous post for details of how the homelessness assessment process will change.

Attention now turns to implementation. While the Government is yet to publish a timetable it'll inevitably be a tough ask for many local authorities to get ready in time. Not to mention finding the necessary resources to make the Act a success.

A timely Ombudsman report

Meanwhile the Local Government Ombudsman today published a report that couldn't be more pertinent (Complaint against Barnet LBC 16 002 971). Both in terms of why reforming the homeless application process was seen as necessary, but also regarding the challenges some homelessness units face given the numbers of people seeking help.

Ms A was a single woman who'd been evicted by her private landlord. She was repeatedly turned away by Barnet Homes when she asked for help.

Between January 2015 and March 2016 Ms A requested assistance on no less than five occasions. But not once did the Council fulfil its legal duties, i.e. take an application, make proper inquiries and issue a decision on what duty (if any) Ms A was owed. Instead it referred Ms A to external agencies who didn't help her.

Following Ms A's first approach Barnet Homes arranged a hostel place for three nights. This was expressed to be a discretionary placement under the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol rather than being pursuant to any homelessness duty.

Barnet Homes' records concerning the repeated approaches showed that staff justified their approach by recording that the applicant did not have a priority need. However no written decisions were issued.

The 'no priority' stance was maintained despite Ms A presenting in September with a medical report detailing acute asthma. Then in October her father contacted the Council's social care team and expressed concern about Ms A's low mood. In February Ms A's father complained to the Council that Ms A's health was suffering because she was on the streets. She'd also been in hospital for 10 days because of an acute asthma attack.

In March Ms A presented again as homeless but was told that an appointment wasn't available for one month. The Council's record stated:

Client did not want appointment as we are currently booking for over a month away. Advised that she needs to get her 184 decision so to approach as emergency. Gave documents list and advised about what to provide for full assesment.

So, effectively the Council's failure to commence inquiries and issue a written decision was used as justification for not assessing whether s.188 interim accommodation should be provided pending that decision. Hmmm.

A chance to put things right

Of course if you deal with complaints or receive an Ombudsman's enquiry it's vital to quickly identify any service failings, make good those failings and, well, not keep digging if you're already in quite a large hole. This way you can not only put right any wrongs but also demonstrate how you're responsive to instances of service failure. You'll also often avoid the Ombudsman issuing a public report.

Instead the Council sought to justify its inadequate response to Ms A's applications. The following assertion could perhaps be viewed as a misguided attempt at transparency:

the Council did not have resources to help everyone

Ok. Perhaps not the best response to the Ombudsman I've ever read. But there was more:

Ideally we would want to give written decisions to all those who seek our assistance but due to the level of staff resources and high numbers of people approaching our service this is not possible

When responding to a complaint to social services the Council referred to the fact it received over 1,000 housing enquiries per month and stated:

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 assessment and write the subsequent decision letters.

Ombudsman's conclusions

Unsurprisingly the Ombudsman found the Council at fault in not confirming the non-priority need decisions in writing and in wrongly stating that a written decision was required before interim accommodation could be considered. Inquiries should have been undertaken following each approach by Ms A.

The Ombudsman also expressed concern that the Council was aware that it was failing to meet its statutory duties. It was failing to take and decide homeless applications for no legitimate reason.

Ms A was forced to sleep rough and stay with friends as a result of the Council's failings. She may have missed out on the opportunity to be secured interim accommodation. This constituted injustice.

Having received a draft copy of the Ombudsman's report the Council apologised to Ms A and offered her temporary accommodation and specialist support.

In addition the Ombudsman recommended that the Council:

  • provide a written decision on Ms A's homeless application;
  • pay £200 to Ms A's father for his time and trouble in complaining
  • pay £300 to Ms A for her frustration and her lost review and appeal rights
  • ensure applications are taken and written decisions issued.

The Council has commissioned an independent review of its housing options service, including its first contact triage service.

With apologies to Barnet I think I'll use this report when training, as a case study in how not to respond when the Ombudsman calls.

Postscript: complaints handling report

It so happens that the Public Service Ombudsman for Wales has just published a special report detailing poor complaint handling by some public bodies and setting out lessons to be learnt (as well as recommending it be given additional powers and that public bodies in Wales are required to report complaint outcomes).

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