Agenda item

REPORT OF THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT & SOCIAL CARE OMBUDSMAN

Minutes:

Kojo Sarpong, Director of Housing Needs and Dan Hawthorn, Executive Director of Housing and Social Investment addressed the Committee.

 

Mr Sarpong explained to the Committee that, following a complaint, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) had made a finding of maladministration against the Council and published a Public Interest Report. The Council received the LGSCO’s decision on in December 2023, but it was embargoed until 14 March 2024 when it was published on the LGSCO’s website. Public Interest Reports were rare, and Mr Sarpong disclosed that it was only the second one in five years.

 

Mr Sarpong then took the Committee through the circumstances that led to the complaint being made; 

 

·        The complaint related to the Council’s treatment of an application for accommodation by a homeless resident who had fled domestic abuse; and

 

·        The applicant was not offered temporary accommodation as they were staying with friends; and

 

·         The Council accepted the prevention duty but did not issue a personal housing plan (PHP) until 11 weeks after the application; and

 

·        The alleged abuser was not a relative of the applicant, nor personally involved, but was the partner of the applicant’s sibling, which resulted in Council officers not treating it as a domestic abuse case.

 

The applicant made a complaint and went through the Council’s two stage complaint process. The complaint was not upheld at Stage 1. The Council later acknowledged the issues raised by the complainant and upheld the complaint at Stage 2. However, the Council did not offer compensation nor was temporary accommodation provided. The complainant subsequently escalated the issue to the LGSCO who found against the Council.

 

The LGSCO found that a PHP should have been issued when the complainant first contacted the Council and temporary accommodation provided. The LGSCO also found that the Council should have treated the case as a domestic abuse case.

 

The Committee asked what action was being taken to address the training requirements highlighted in the report.

 

The DHN said that ongoing training was being undertaken in relation to the provisions of the Family Law Act 1996 and the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 when considering homeless applications. Regular updates will be provided to staff on changes to the legal provisions whilst the induction of new staff will include training in both acts. As part of the training, staff would be trained to look out for signs of domestic abuse as sometimes applicants do not disclose abuse at the first appointment.

 

The Committee noted that, as mitigation to the LGSCO the Council cited the increase in homeless applications and IT issues and sought information on whether the Council had addressed the issues cited as mitigation.

 

Regarding IT issues, the Mr Sarpong by way of example, cited software gaps resulting in applications not being properly recorded in relation to data provided to central government. Those issues had now been rectified.

 

A data cleanse had been undertaken to ensure that cases were being recorded correctly and Mr Sarpong assured the Committee that the overall data was accurate.

 

The Committee heard that there had been an 8% increase in homeless applications in the 2023/24 fiscal year. This followed a 17% increase in 2022/23. Training was being undertaken to manage the rising number of applications. However there had been challenges with staff absences and high caseloads. A high proportion of staff had no previous experience in dealing with homeless people whilst experienced staff had left the sector. 

 

In response to further questioning from the Committee, the Mr Hawthorn said that the Leadership Team was aware of the challenges that the Council’s housing services faced and the pressures on staff. However, Mr Sarpong added that staff motivation was a challenge as the job often involved delivering outcomes that clients do not seek; this was an issue affecting all inner London boroughs.

 

The Committee, seeking assurance, asked that the number of staff who have completed the training be provided and those for whom training is still required.

 

Action by: Director of Housing Needs

 

Responding to questioning on lessons learned, the Mr Sarpong said that a Domestic Abuse Lead had been appointed and outlined their responsibilities; including overseeing how clients who disclose they are fleeing domestic abuse are treated. Discussion was held on the definition of domestic abuse and Mr Sarpong said the Domestic Abuse Lead had a background in assisting people who had experienced domestic abuse.

 

The Committee sought information on what action the Council was taking to implement the recommendations of the LGSCO. Mr Sarpong regularly met with his team to discuss performance and reported his findings to Mr Hawthorn. The Lead Member, Councillor Addenbrooke, was provided with weekly updates, and Mr Sarpong and Councillor Addenbrooke meet every two weeks. A quarterly report would be provided to the Leadership Team going forward.

 

The complaints process was discussed and Mr Hawthorn acknowledged that there had been issues, however he highlighted that shortcomings in the initial response at Stage 1 were picked up in Stage 2, albeit the LGSCO disagreed about the appropriate remedy.

 

The Committee suggested that there was in some parts of the team a culture of hastily dismissing complaints and not taking them seriously; a point accepted by both Mr Sarpong and Mr Hawthorn. How complaints were dealt with would be subject to more stringent oversight including meeting with managers to oversee and regularly review complaints procedures.

 

The Committee noted that a recording system for PHPs had not been available when the legislation changed and that the backlog had therefore not been reported in any KPIs. The Committee concluded that this had a council-wide lesson that there should be a review of training and software capacity when new legislation is introduced.

 

Mr Sarpong and Mr Hawthorn cautioned that complaints were frequently complex and often the Council could not always address the complainant’s request owing to limitations on the amount of social housing and other options available. The Committee acknowledged this but highlighted the LGSCO’s criticism of the time it took the Council to agree a PHP with the Complainant expressing concern that the information on the number of homeless assistance applications compared with number of PHPs issued was not readily available.

 

The Committee requested a written follow up to Leadership Team report.

 

Action By: Director of Housing Needs

 

The Chair concluded the discussion.

 

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