The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has highlighted the misery caused by local authorities’ poor handling of housing benefits in a new report.
Housing benefit is being phased out due to the roll-out of universal credit, but the ombudsman is concerned that poor practices among some councils causes distress and poses a homelessness risk for vulnerable families.
Housing benefit is still paid to 3.6 million people in England. Issues highlighted in the report include preventing families from challenging decisions, not telling them about their right to appeal, or councils trying to recover overpaid money before an appeal is considered.
This week, the ombudsman found in favour of a single family with a disabled child that had been made homeless following a miscalculation of their housing benefits by Haringey Council in North London. The council wrongly told the family’s landlord that the mother owed £8,000 in backdated benefits, and he then asked them to leave.
The ombudsman then also found that Haringey Council compounded the situation by incorrectly dealing with the family’s homelessness application and placing them in unsuitable accommodation.
The ombudsman, Michael King, said: “We have seen councils recovering money, which they think they have overpaid to claimants, before the window to appeal has closed. In some examples, they have even started to recover funds while still in the process of deciding the person’s appeal. Scenarios like this are contrary to the spirit of the legislation and can unnecessarily deprive vulnerable households of vital support. I encourage councils to think hard about the consequences of their actions in situations like this.”
The ombudsman’s chief executive, Nigel Ellis, said: "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."