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Families driven to homelessness due to housing benefit errors by local councils, watchdog warns

Local authorities denying vulnerable households right to fair hearing on welfare entitlements, causing uncertainty and, in more extreme cases, making them homeless, Local Government Ombudsman says

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 09 January 2020 07:45 GMT
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The Ombudsman’s report said issues include councils preventing families from challenging decisions about their housing benefit entitlements
The Ombudsman’s report said issues include councils preventing families from challenging decisions about their housing benefit entitlements (Getty)

Dozens of families have been driven towards homelessness as a result of malpractice by local councils when dealing with appeals against housing benefit claims, a government watchdog has said.

A report by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGO) warns that vulnerable families are being refused the right to a fair hearing by having their right to appeal against their council’s decision taken away, causing uncertainty and, in more extreme cases, making them homeless.

Last year, the watchdog upheld 78 per cent of the 74 complaints it investigated about housing benefit, compared with 58 per cent for all its casework. It said that highlighted problems with some councils’ understanding of their duties and the correct processes they must follow.

The Ombudsman’s report said issues include councils preventing families from challenging decisions about their housing benefit entitlement or not telling them about their right to appeal, as well as trying to recover overpaid money before appeals have even been considered.

It comes two days after the Ombudsman published the case of a young family, including a disabled child, who had to leave their home following a miscalculation of their housing benefits by the London Borough of Haringey.

The single-parent family had been living in privately rented accommodation but were evicted by their landlord after the council incorrectly told him they owed more than £8,000 in backdated benefits.

The ombudsman said the council had failed to calculate the mother’s benefits properly and had wrongly told the landlord that she owed a significant debt. It also did not refer her case to the appeals tribunal.

A Haringey Council spokesperson apologised for the mistakes an said it had taken steps to fix them.

In another case, published in the report, poor internal communication and record keeping at one council, coupled with a delay in the appeal process, led to more than two years of confusion for one man about the amount of benefit he should be receiving and whether the council was right to pursue him for overpayment.

Nigel Ellis, chief executive at the LGO, said the cases highlighted the “very real impact” of what can happen when councils do not deliver housing benefit properly.

“Some of our most vulnerable families are refused a fair hearing by having their rights to appeal their council’s decision taken away,” Mr Ellis said.

“We are issuing this report to provide guidance and good practice advice to help those who administer housing benefits avoid the pitfalls and common problems we are highlighting.”

Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the LGA's resources board,added:​ “The funding that councils receive from government to administer housing benefit falls short of the true costs of administration. Councils have also faced considerable and ongoing pressures and uncertainty due to welfare reforms and changes to the timescales for implementing universal credit, which have stretched councils’ revenues and benefits services.“

The warning comes amid a backdrop of rising homelessness, with a household now found to be without a home every four minutes and 25,130 families with children found to be homeless in the space of three months last year.

The number of children living in temporary accommodation, meanwhile, hit a 13-year high, with councils now forced to spend around £93.3m on B&Bs, hostels and council-owned properties for homeless households – up from £10.6m in 2009-10.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said the report highlighted some "important learning for councils and government to take forward to improve fairness and accuracy within the benefits system".

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