Ombudsman condemns council’s failure to notify landlord of housing benefit delay

Scottish Public Services Ombudsman spsoThe Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) has criticised the City of Edinburgh Council over its failure to notify a landlord that his tenant’s housing benefit would not be paid.

An investigation report laid before the Scottish Parliament revealed that Mr C, who is the landlord for his brother (Mr A), complained to the Ombudsman that the council suspended a housing benefit payment to his tenant, without notifying either the tenant or Mr C. This was despite the council telling the landlord that on a previous occasion they would notify him if it happened again.

Following an investigation, the Ombudsman upheld the complaint that the council unreasonably failed to notify Mr C that his tenant’s housing benefit would not be paid and has given the council a deadline of June 24 to apologise to the landlord.

The Ombudsman has also recommended that the council amends its processes to ensure that individuals are notified at the time a suspension is applied to their benefit (as required by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) guidance) by August 24.

The investigation found that Mr A has an injury which means he needs support to manage his affairs. Because of this, the housing benefit is paid directly to Mr C as landlord, (and Mr C is authorised to communicate directly with the council about this). Mr A’s housing benefit payment was delayed on three occasions without notice, with the longest delay being about five weeks.

When Mr C complained after the second delay, the council agreed to monitor Mr A’s account so they could notify Mr C of any future delays. However, this monitoring was stopped after three months, and Mr A’s payment was again delayed without notice. Mr C complained to the council, who apologised that he was not told that the monitoring of Mr A’s account had stopped. The council said they had found a more efficient way to monitor Mr A’s account, for a further six months. However, Mr C was not satisfied with the council’s response and brought his complaint to SPSO.

In response to SPSO’s enquiries, the council explained that the DWP use a system of automated notifications to notify the council electronically of any changes to a benefit claimant’s records (such as contact details or income details). Where a notification is received that could result in a change in benefit entitlement, the council’s system automatically suspends the claimant’s benefit payment (to stop any payments being made until the change has been reviewed). Council officers then review these notifications and either lift the suspension (if the change does not affect the claimant’s entitlements) or contact the claimant to request further information or make changes, if necessary.

The council said Mr A’s benefit was automatically suspended on three occasions (each time due to one benefit being stopped, with a different benefit starting in its place). As these changes did not affect Mr A’s payment, the council unsuspended the payment each time (once it had an opportunity to review it). The council said the delay was due to the workload it had at the time, with each automated suspension being dealt with in turn.

When asked why it did not notify claimants when their benefits were suspended in this way, the council said this was because, in most cases, the automated suspensions are removed without any impact on benefit claimants, so it is not necessary to warn people about a possible delay in payment. The council said it receives thousands of automated notifications every month, and notifying every claimant of a suspension that may be lifted before the payment is due would create unnecessary confusion and contact with the council, which would divert resources from dealing with the suspensions as quickly as possible.

The council also said its system would not allow it to send a letter that would fully explain the situation in appropriate circumstances, so it would need to do this manually (which would impact on resources). The council added that, since this complaint, it had improved its processes to minimise the chance of a payment being delayed.

After investigating these matters, the SPSO upheld Mr C’s complaint. It found that the council was not complying with guidance from the DWP that requires decision makers to notify claimants in writing when a decision is made to suspend their benefit.

The Ombudsman did not consider the council had a reasonable explanation for not complying with this guidance, as the numbers it gave about the average number and length of automated suspensions did not support its claim that the risk of a payment being delayed was small.

The council was not able to provide information on the actual numbers of people whose benefits are delayed, or for how long, as it does not monitor this.

The Ombudsman was particularly concerned that the council’s system of automated suspensions did not include mechanisms for protecting vulnerable people or considering hardship at the time the suspension is made. It was also not clear that the council is giving appropriate consideration to the individual circumstances of each case when they make a decision to suspend a payment under the automated system.

A council spokesperson told Scottish Housing News: “As always we continually strive to provide the best service to the citizens of Edinburgh and are continually reviewing and making enhancements to our internal processes. We accept the findings in the report and its recommendations and we are in the process of making the necessary improvements to our systems.”

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