Families are facing the very real prospect of becoming homeless because of the way some authorities are dealing with appeals against housing benefit claims, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is warning.
In a new report, the Ombudsman highlights the serious problems people face when authorities get things wrong with housing benefit payments.
Despite being gradually replaced by Universal Credit, housing benefit is still paid to some 3.6 million of England’s poorest and most vulnerable people who rely on it to help with living costs. When councils get things wrong this only adds to the pressure these families face.
The Ombudsman’s report looks at the lessons local authorities can learn from the cases it has investigated.
In some situations, poor practices have led to confusion and uncertainty while in more extreme cases – including in a report issued this week – families have become homeless.
Nigel Ellis, Chief Executive at the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “The cases we highlight in this report show 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.
“Although Universal Credit is being rolled out across the country, this is not happening as quickly as first anticipated; councils still need to ensure they administer housing benefits properly until the new system is in place in their area.
“Last year we upheld 78 per cent of the complaints we investigated about housing benefit, compared with 58 per cent for all our casework.
“This suggests there are problems with some councils’ understanding of their duties towards claimants and the correct processes they must follow.
“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.”
Problems discussed in the Ombudsman’s report include councils preventing families from challenging decisions about their housing benefit entitlement, or not telling them about their right to appeal, and councils trying to recover overpaid money before appeals have even been considered.
In one case, poor internal communication and poor record keeping at the 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.
The Ombudsman investigates complaints about the way councils administer housing benefit, including the administration of appeals. The Ombudsman does not decide whether someone is entitled to housing benefit or not.
If someone disagrees with a council’s decision on a claim, after the council has carried out a review of its decision, the council must pass the case to the independent tribunal (Social Entitlement Chamber of the First-Tier Tribunal).