The Housing Ombudsman Service berates LBWF for its error-strewn response to a resident’s routine request for information

Hardly a week goes by without someone from the Town Hall popping up to insist that, in everything LBWF does, it is ‘resident focused’.

However, as previous posts have suggested, whether such a boast can be sustained remains debateable.

In this context, a recent complaint that a LBWF tenant lodged with the Housing Ombudsman Service (HOS) is significant.

The tenant had wanted to confirm that her tenancy automatically would be handed down to her son, and believed that the relevant information was contained in a council document called ‘Appendix 10’.

But when she had looked for ‘Appendix 10’ on LBWF’s website, it didn’t appear to be there, and so she had contacted the Town Hall for advice.

What followed formed the core of her complaint because, rather than being given a straightforward answer, she was subjected to a series of prevarications and obfuscations, which the HOS itemised in memorable detail:

‘Assessment and findings

18. The landlord did not respond to the resident’s enquiry regarding succession, which led to her chasing the issue ten days later.  It was inappropriate that the landlord did not acknowledge the resident’s request and then having received a follow up email, advised that it would respond if it could.  It was inappropriate because although the Covid-19 crisis meant that landlords were only carrying out emergency repairs and staff were working from home, this did not negate the landlord’s responsibility to respond to notifications, enquiries and complaints; albeit that this may have been a little delayed as a result of the pandemic and subsequent impact.  

19. The landlord’s response of 27 April 2020 in which it provided…[an] incorrect appendix was unhelpful.  Not only was it unhelpful insofar as it provided information which was not relevant to the resident’s enquiry, but it did not attempt to address the resident’s enquiry and concerns around succession and whether and how her son might succeed the tenancy.  Had the landlord done this, this would likely have prevented the complaint that followed. 

20. The landlord did not demonstrate that it had heard and understood the enquiry, nor a resolution-focussed approach, in either its response to the resident’s enquiry or her formal complaint, missing an opportunity to put things right at the earliest opportunity. Moreover, the resident was enquiring about the event of her death at a time when there was public anxiety as to health, therefore the resident’s enquiry about securing her son’s future was particularly resonant.  The landlord did not recognise the sensitivity of the timing or the topic at hand. 

21. Having made a complaint on 28 May 2020, the landlord was required to respond in accordance with its complaints policy, within 20 working days.  It did not provide a formal response to the complaint at stage one at all, instead telephoning the resident and providing advice over the phone.  Not only was it inappropriate that the landlord did not act in accordance with its policy in this regard but notwithstanding the complaint, it was inappropriate for it to respond to a written enquiry about a specialised matter such as the legal process of succession, verbally.  

22. In not providing a written response, the resident was not given the important information requested in a clear, tangible format, which she could use to refer to, consider and base a decision on.  Further, information provided verbally only, risks miscommunication and misunderstanding and importantly, does not create an audit trail of what was advised.  

23. The landlord has accepted that it delayed in providing ‘appendix 10’, for which it apologised, as well as for the fact it did not respond to the complaint at stage one. It also delayed in responding to the complaint at stage two and overall. 

24. In providing a resolution to the complaint, the landlord listened to the outcome requested, which was for it to provide ‘appendix 10’ and to publish this on its website, however, it ultimately did not publish this and in not doing so, damaged trust and confidence in it and its integrity.  The documentation provided to this investigation indicates that the landlord did not publish ‘appendix 10’ because another department (to the complaints department) did not want to invest in updating the website when it was going to be publishing a new scheme a number of months hence.  There is no information that the landlord contacted the resident to explain that it would not be publishing the document or provide any reasons for this. This situation demonstrated a lack of cohesion and joined-upness between teams at the landlord and undermined the complaints process. 

25. The landlord did not seek to provide the advice the resident initially asked for in its response to the complaint.  It may have been that providing ‘appendix 10’ was sufficient at this point, however, the landlord did not attempt to ascertain whether the resident understood the situation as to her request for future succession, which given this was the substance of the initial contact, would have been prudent for it to have done. Finally, the landlord, while accepting that it took too long to provide the information, did not seek to demonstrate that it had identified the reason or learning from this; a fundamental aspect of responding to a complaint’.

Given this catalogue of errors, it is unsurprising that the HOS found against LBWF, and ordered it to pay compensation, plus carry out ‘a lessons-learned exercise’.

Of course, LBWF likely will claim that this case was an unhappy one-off, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

For one thing, and as the HOS was at pains to point out, the failings which it uncovered encompassed multiple officers, in at least two departments.  

For another, it is surely revealing that those same officers broke their own rules apparently without much hesitation, because this suggests such behaviour was not an aberration, but embedded, even tacitly accepted by the hierarchy.

Perhaps the pandemic was partly to blame, but the HOS notably does not harp on this potential source of mitigation, and, anyway, the resident’s request was hardly taxing, in fact could have been satisfied in minutes at any point after the enquiry was first submitted.

The bottom line, therefore, is that LBWF’s claim to be ‘resident focused’ has definite limits, and these are particularly pronounced where the issue is controversial or (as in this case) likely to highlight service and individual failures.

Whether, as some allege, LBWF officers actively pursue delay and obfuscation in order to block criticism remains unproven.

But what can be said is that the Town Hall has a more diffuse aversion to transparency, dating from the early 2000s, and this undoubtedly colours the way it responds to questioning, regardless of good practice or the stipulations of regulators.

It is reasonable to conclude that the issues raised in the preceding paragraphs need urgent review.

Whether this will happen – indeed can happen given the Labour leadership’s almost complete control of the local political agenda – is, needless to say, a very different matter.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Michelle Edwards for bringing the HOS judgement to my attention.

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