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Watching the
Local Government Ombudsman

Gary Powell
Director of LGOWatch

In 1999 I encountered a particularly unpleasant experience of injustice and local authority callousness when I tried to help a young family avoid eviction by Hounslow Council for incorrectly alleged non-payment of rent. The family consisted of the mother, Ms Taylor*, who was receiving treatment for stress and depression; her partner, Mr Stone* (* - names changed to protect confidentiality), who had a serious heart defect; and three young children of both sexes. They were living in a two-bedroom council flat. The daughter was old enough to need her own bedroom, and her brothers shared the other one. This left the parents with the chore of struggling to drag a double mattress into the living room every evening as a makeshift bedroom, and of course reversing the procedure the following morning. There was a further teenage child living with his grandparents in another borough because of the overcrowded conditions in this flat. Newsroom South East in fact ran a report on this family’s overcrowded living conditions.

As if this predicament were not bad enough, on account of poor communication between the DSS and the Council Housing Department, the Housing Department was not sent a confirmation of the family’s entitlement to supplementary benefit (Proofs), and so they expected the family to pay full rent. Arrears accrued, and a Notice of Intention to Seek Possession was issued. Although Ms Taylor explained that the family were in receipt of benefits, the Council accused her of failing to submit a Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit form, of which she eventually submitted four in total: to no avail, as the Housing Department denied any of them having been received. Ms Taylor was accused of lying. The Council refused to remove the Notice. Ms Taylor, already receiving treatment for stress and depression, was at the end of her rope, as was her partner.

I was asked to help this family specifically with the eviction threat, though the circumstances they were experiencing as a result of Hounslow Council’s appalling maladministration required more extensive involvement than I had anticipated. Ms Taylor had repeatedly submitted Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit forms as instructed, which the Council repeatedly asserted they had not received, and I could see no way of removing this threat. In the end, I wrote to the DSS, and it was discovered they had failed to send the Council the Proofs. Although the DSS shared in the blame to a degree, the Council’s issuing a Notice of Intention to Seek Possession, rather than investigating whether the problem was beyond Ms Taylor’s control, identifying the absence of Proofs and giving the DSS a quick phone call to resolve the matter, amounted to clea! r-cut maladministration with injustice, especially in view of the anxiety the situation caused to this couple, who suffered stress-filled months between service and revocation of this Notice.

With regard to the overcrowding issue, a member of the Council’s Housing Department visited the family, and identified that the family needed to be re-housed urgently because of their overcrowding. A calculation of the number of housing points they had fell short of the number required to join the waiting list for a four-bedroom property, which the officer believed they needed. However, they both had medical conditions that were exacerbated by their poor housing: Ms Taylor with her stress-related depression, and Mr Stone with his congenital heart condition, (he was one of the first babies in the country to be given a pig’s heart valve transplant by Professor Magi Jacob, and the valve was leaking and causing exhaustion). They were instructed to send self-certified details of their conditions to the Council Medical Officer on the appropriate form. This in itself was a very dubious proc! edure, as without medical confirmation of the conditions, anyone could obviously invent anything on these forms. Mr Stone’s GP gave him a letter confirming the deleterious effect the poor housing was having on his medical condition, and inviting the assessor to contact him for further information if needed. This form was sent to the Council Medical Officer. Ms Taylor’s GP felt she could not give a similar open letter for forwarding on account of the risk of breach of confidentiality, but said she was happy to send the information directly to the Council’s physician if it was requested. I spoke to Ms Taylor’s GP myself, and could perfectly understand her concerns. These medical letters have to be paid for, incidentally, and are obviously a burden on a family with a very low income. Ms Taylor sent the self-certified medical form to the council together with an invitation to contact her GP.

The news came back form the Council that both Ms Taylor and Mr Stone were being awarded zero medical points for housing transfer. No reason was given. The Council Medical Officer also apparently had a policy of not contacting GPs for further information. The award of zero points in these demonstrably worthy and valid cases was itself a case of maladministration, let alone the breach of medical confidentiality and the vulnerability of this unmonitored procedure to abuse by dishonest applicants. The fact that no reason was giving for the award of zero points in either case also represented maladministration according to the Ombudsman’s published guidelines, as it removed the possibility of appeal or clarification. The award of zero medical points under these circumstances was also in breach of the Council’s own guidelines for the awarding of medical housing transfer points, itself a bl! atant example of maladministration as defined by the LGO.

The family therefore did not have enough points to join the waiting list for the four-bedroom property the Council regarded them as needing. However, although they had adequate points to join the waiting list for a three-bedroom property, which would have been a significant improvement to their current conditions, the Council in a letter expressed the possibility that it might refuse to allow them to transfer into a three-bedroom property because it was too small for their assessed housing needs! The net effect of this, of course, was that they could end up stuck in the two-bedroom property. It was at this point I realised, to my horror, that I was dealing with the Council from Hell.

On the Local Government Ombudsman’s website, in its guidance on good practice section, I discovered an interesting concept: ‘the fettering of discretion’. Apparently, it amounts to maladministration if a local authority sticks rigidly to a policy if other circumstances strongly indicate that some flexibility would be appropriate. If Hounslow Council has (had?) some insane policy that entailed imprisoning a family in an overcrowded two-bedroom flat rather then letting them join the waiting list for a three-bedroom property because the Council considered on the one hand that they needed a four-bedroom property and on the other that they did not even have enough housing points to join a waiting list for such a property, then this family’s circumstances would at the very least have required an unfettering of discretion.

Whilst all this was going on, the family was suffering floods through their ceiling from the upstairs neighbour, which were affecting the electric lighting. The neighbour was apparently deaf, and prone to running the bath taps and forgetting they were on, on at least one occasion leaving the property with the taps in full flow. On other occasions there were floods caused by plumbing problems. Ms Taylor complained to the Council, and their response was entirely inadequate, failing to write to the neighbour concerned. On one occasion, I had a telephone call from the family, who were sitting in complete darkness in their front room following yet another flood that had put paid to their electric lighting. I could do nothing but call Social Services, and to my relief the intervention of a social worker eventually got the immediate problem resolved.

The correspondence between myself and Hounslow Council during this period was voluminous. I copied all of it to the Local Government Ombudsman, together with Ms Taylor’s complaint. I also wrote a detailed account of events in an accompanying letter to the Ombudsman, and there was further exchange of correspondence between myself and the Investigator. Everything was set out very clearly. Following his ‘investigation’, the Investigator wrote to me on behalf of the LGO and stated that, in his view, the Council had not done anything that would amount to maladministration with injustice. I was incredulous.

I assumed the Investigator was simply not competent, and wrote a substantive letter of complaint to the Assistant Director, highlighting the correspondence between the LGO’s definitions of maladministration, and the Council’s action. He was in general very defensive of the Investigator’s findings, but conceded that he would ask the Council to pay Ms Taylor £150 in compensation for the stress caused by the way her housing benefit application was dealt with.

I then wrote a further substantive, detailed and closely-argued letter of complaint to the Assistant Director, and in response I had yet another concession: an award of £200 to Ms Taylor for the stress and uncertainly caused by the discrepancy between the Council’s stated and practised policy for the awarding of housing transfer medical points. He refused to make any award at all in respect of the time and trouble caused by the process of making the complaints, notwithstanding the hundreds of pages of correspondence and hours of labour to supply facts and arguments that were simply ignored, first by the Council, and then by the LGO. (In fact, this is a common experience of LGOwatch members: the LGO simply ignoring clear facts and arguments that would impede his finding in favour of the Council.)

I truly had to wring these two concessions out of the Assistant Commissioner by being extremely tenacious. The evidence was frankly watertight, and these cases of maladministration were so obvious they would have been recognised immediately by any fair and impartial investigation, and should not have required the further letters to the Assistant Director. My thought was one of dismay regarding the hope of people who experience similar appalling treatment from a council and are in no position to provide such a detailed and thoroughly argued case with unassailable evidence. I did not provide any new evidence to the Assistant Director: just arguments based on the LGO’s own guidelines to determine maladministration. I am quite sure many people simply give up, and the experience had a pungent odour of blatant pro-council bias.

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