Family left homeless after council 'benefits blunder'

A council has been criticised for leaving the family of a disabled child homeless for six months after incorrectly telling their landlord they owed more than £8,000 in backdated benefits.

Haringey Council have apologised. Picture: Google Maps
Haringey Council have apologised. Picture: Google Maps

A report published by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman outlines the details of what it described as a “benefits blunder” by Haringey Council which resulted in the single-parent family living in unsuitable accommodation while the mistake was rectified.

An investigation by the ombudsman found the council at fault for failing to calculate the mother’s benefits properly.

It revealed the council had not used a mandatory "underlying entitlement" rule to work out the woman’s overpayments. Underlying entitlement is a calculation of what a person’s correct benefit entitlement should have been for a period where they have been overpaid. 

It also discovered her case had not been correctly referred to the appeals tribunal.

The ombudsman said the council’s actions meant the family were asked to leave their privately rented accommodation after their landlord was wrongly informed the mother owed a significant debt.

Under the rules limiting benefits to a family’s first two children, the woman should always have been eligible for the allowance for her third child because he was born before April 2017, the ombudsman concluded.

The council was also criticised for the way it handled the woman’s homelessness application once she was evicted.

Michael King, the local government and social care ombudsman, said the miscalculation of the woman’s benefit entitlement had resulted in a “significant impact” on her family’s life.

“To compound that problem, the council did not deal with her homelessness application properly and failed to refer her case to the appeal tribunal as it was obliged to do in law,” he said.

He ordered the council to pay the woman £1,000 for the distress caused, a further £1,300 in recognition of the six months spent in unsuitable accommodation and £500 for storage costs incurred when she had to leave her rented property.

The council was also ordered to submit the woman’s case to the appeals tribunal if she was still willing to make an application.

King said the council, which had already contacted the woman over her application, should help find suitable housing for the family.

He said the council had agreed to investigate the calculation errors and audit cases where it calculated overpayments applying the two-child restriction.

It was then required to report its findings to the ombudsman, he said.

“I am pleased the council has accepted my recommendations, and hope the review it has pledged to make of past cases, and the improved policies and procedures it will put in place, will help it to understand what has gone wrong and ensure other people are not placed in the same difficult position as this family,” King added.

A spokesperson for Haringey Council said: “We’re sorry for the mistakes we made in this specific case and have taken steps to fix them.

“The wellbeing of residents is a priority for Haringey Council as it is for all local authorities and we’re determined to learn lessons from this to ensure similar situations are not repeated in the future.”

The council has since paid the woman more than £5,500 in compensation and backdated their application to the housing register to January 2018, returning them to the same position on the waiting list if their application had been correctly processed at the time, they added.