LGO highlights councils’ failings over legal duties to homeless people
Archived press release
Date Published: 06/07/11
Report says local authorities must do more to stop ‘inappropriate gatekeeping’ as number of rough sleepers begins to rise.
The Local Government Ombudsman will today warn councils that they face criticism for maladministration if they fail to meet responsibilities to homeless people.
The body, which independently investigates complaints about local authorities in England, is publishing a report on the serious mistakes some councils make when dealing with people with housing difficulties.
It is concerned that increasing numbers of people may face significant injustice because homelessness is on the rise and council budgets are under pressure.
The report asks councils to consider how they ensure people who face homelessness get the help that they are entitled to. Other organisations have coined the phrase ‘gatekeeping’ to describe where, for no legitimate reason, councils refuse to accept, or delay, an application for help with a homelessness problem.
People are legally entitled to help from councils if they are homeless or face homelessness within 28 days. This can range from advice and practical assistance to the provision of interim accommodation for those judged to be in priority need.
Someone would be in priority need if they have dependent children, are pregnant or if they are vulnerable – for example, if they are ill, disabled, a victim of domestic violence or under 18 years old.
Dr Jane Martin, Ombudsman and Chair of the Commission for Local Administration in England, said:
“The complaints we receive suggest councils should consider how they meet their responsibilities to homeless people. We see too many cases where individuals have suffered injustice at a particularly precarious moment in their lives when they most needed help.
"Often extremely vulnerable, they can find themselves sleeping rough or on people's sofas, struggling to find the foothold that would allow them to change their circumstances. When councils fail to give them a helping hand at that key moment, it can affect that individual for years.
“I am concerned that more people could now suffer injustice because of the combined impact of a tough economic climate and the serious budget pressures on councils. It’s really important that councils are alert to this very significant risk. We want to help them understand the dangers and take action to avoid mistakes.”
The report says the Local Government Ombudsman investigates more than 300 complaints every year where people claim to have been denied access to help or interim accommodation for no legitimate reason.
It tells the stories of six people who did not get the help that they should have. They include: a pregnant women who struggled to get help from the council after being asked to leave her parents' home; a wheelchair user who had to prove she was in priority need; a young family who needed assistance when mortgage arrears built up; and a victim of domestic violence trying to move on from a women's refuge.
The report says that common areas where councils go wrong include: failing to do enough to prevent people becoming homeless; failing to look into whether a person needs help; failing to recognise an application for help; or failing to provide interim accommodation where someone is in priority need.
Identifying specific good and bad practice, the report urges councils to avoid:
- using homelessness prevention activity to block or delay the consideration of a homelessness application
- insisting that applicants for help with homelessness must complete a specific form, or be interviewed by a specialist homelessness assessment officer
- placing the burden of proof on the applicant, stressing that authorities should make their own enquiries when considering applications, or
- deferring an application because an applicant appears a non-priority – applicants claiming immediate homelessness should be assessed on the day.
If the Ombudsman finds a council has acted unfairly, the council can be asked to apologise, pay compensation, take a different course of action, or review its procedures to prevent recurrence.
Statistics suggest that homelessness is beginning to rise, with the problem likely to be most serious in London. Precise figures are hard to work out, but key indicators suggest increasing numbers of people are:
- sleeping on the streets
- being accepted by councils as homeless and a priority for temporary housing, and
- seeking advice on housing problems such as rental arrears.