Families face homelessness because of errors in the way some councils deal with appeals against decisions on housing benefit claims, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has warned.
In a report Focus on Housing Benefit, the Ombudsman highlighted the serious problems that can occur despite the benefit being gradually replaced by Universal Credit.
Nigel Ellis, chief executive at the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:“The cases we highlight in this report show the very real impact of what can happen when councils do not deliver housing benefit properly.
“Some of our most vulnerable families are refused a fair hearing by having their rights to appeal their council’s decision taken away.”
Ellis said the Ombudsman service last year upheld 78% of complaints investigated about housing benefit, compared with 58% for cases of all kinds.
“This suggests there are problems with some councils’ understanding of their duties towards claimants and the correct processes they must follow,” he said.
Cases discussed in the report include councils preventing families from challenging decisions about their housing benefit entitlement, or not telling them about their right to appeal.
Some tried to recover overpaid money before appeals had been considered.
The report said that in some cases councils failed to realise they were dealing with an appeal, when a request was not clearly marked as such.
“Claimants should not be expected to understand complex regulations, or it assumed they have access to advice services,” the report said.
“Sometimes they will simply believe their council has got something wrong and express that in simple terms. Even when a council thinks it has made the correct decision, it must not deprive people of their right to an independent appeal.”
There had also been delays in responding to appeals and failures to process them.
Councils could choose to recover overpaid housing benefit from a landlord, who might then recover the difference from the tenant and so put them in arrears.
In such cases tenants must still be allowed to appeal the overpayment and/or its recovery, the Ombudsman said.
There must also be procedures in place to react promptly to changes in tenants’ financial circumstances.
Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board, said: “The funding that councils receive from government to administer housing benefit falls short of the true costs of administration.
“Councils have also faced considerable and ongoing pressures and uncertainty due to welfare reforms and changes to the timescales for implementing Universal Credit, which have stretched councils’ revenues and benefits services.
“It is vital that the Government recognises the ongoing role of councils in administering housing benefit, and in supporting claimants provides appropriate, timely funding to councils to deliver this role, to ensure that councils are able to provide the fairest, most accurate service that they can.”
Cllr Watts said the Ombudsman’s report contained “some important learning for councils.”