Learning from mistakes - Ombudsman report on homelessness

15.07.2020

The Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman has issued his latest focus report on council homelessness services.

Complaint

Home truths: how well are councils implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act? is based on the Ombudsman's first 50 detailed investigations after the 2017 Act came into force. The casework dates from before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Common issues

The most common issues encountered by the Ombudsman are:

  • Delay - most commonly in responding to initial requests for assistance, providing interim accommodation and in accepting the relief duty.
  • Communication - e.g. not providing written decisions in clear language, telling applicants they're owed the prevention duty when they're already homeless, and not notifying applicants when ending duties, which has the effect of preventing applicants exercising their right of review and appeal.
  • Poor practice - e.g. failing to review and update personal housing plans when applicants become homeless.

Examples are set out in the report which illustrate the above themes, with links to the relevant complaint reports on the LGO's website.

The Ombudsman recognises that the report is drawn from a small sample and focuses on problems rather than solutions. However, the hope is that the report prompts councils to identify practical changes they can take to avoid the identified issues, thereby improving the quality of support offered to homeless applicants.

It's also acknowledged that more detailed studies are required to fully understand the impact of the Homelessness Reduction Act.

Small number

One interesting aspect of the Ombudsman's work is that, given the large number of homeless applications, there are few published reports.

While the LGO upheld 75% of the 160 complaints about homelessness in 2019/20, 160 is a very low number compared to the thousands of homeless applications made every year.

This is largely a result of process. Members of the public must usually first use the council's own complaint procedure before complaining to the Ombudsman.

The wise complaints manager identifies at an early stage whether there's been poor practice. A prompt apology and corrective action is usually sufficient to head off an investigation by the Ombudsman.

Only a small proportion of the published LGO complaint summaries include findings of maladministration causing injustice.

This reflects the fact that, even if the matter escalates to the Ombudsman and the council have been at fault, there's a further opportunity to reach a settlement.

It's unusual nowadays to come across LGO reports where homelessness managers have persisted in seeking to justify poor practice throughout the investigation.

Again, a key task for the council is to identify any fault, and if necessary offer an apology and corrective measures. Clearly, the best managers ensure that valid complaints are resolved early and don't even reach the Ombudsman.

All of this suggests that, counterintuitively, there are often potential benefits of submitting a formal complaint.

Albeit, that to frame a good complaint you've got to understand how the law operates. Making a complaint is easy. But for it to be successful a sharp focus on the evidence and relevant issues is essential.

And it's critical that applicants are helped to pursue a statutory review, appeal or judicial review if these alternative routes are available.

Of course advocates and support workers have an important role in helping applicants navigate this maze.

Letters for advisors

If you advise or support those applying for accommodation because of homelessness, you may want to check out the template letters in the Resources section.

These include some letters specifically for making complaints.

Training

And if your organisation advises or supports homeless people you may be interested in my training course on the statutory safety net.

It covers the homelessness duties owed by councils, but also helps staff advocate effectively, and present evidence on their behalf to the council.

The one-day version can be delivered remotely via three two-hour online sessions.

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