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Severe maladministration finding by the Housing Ombudsman

A resident with poor mental health was failed by Tandridge District Council for nearly a year as it did not abide by its duties under the Equality Act or its own safeguarding policy.
Housing Ombudsman Richard Blakeway

The period around the complaint starts as the housing officer with responsibility for the resident was told that she had recently attempted to end her own life.

The resident’s case had already been referred to the Community Harm and Risk Management Meeting (CHARMM) and a few months into the period of the complaint, had asked an Independent Mental Health Advocacy to act on her behalf.

However, instead of referring her to a Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub, the housing officer instead asked if the attempt to end her life was “accidental” and added he was “inundated” with concerns about her and her sister’s behaviour.

It was not until nine months after this, and once the housing officer had left the landlord’s employment, that the case services team leader referred the resident to the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub, Adult Social Care, the Community Mental Health Recovery Services and her GP.

When asked by the Independent Mental Health Advocacy not to contact the resident by phone, the housing officer said that was “unrealistic” and did not take it on board.

A couple of months after, the housing officer turned up unannounced with police presence to inspect the residents CCTV, causing distress to the resident. This was “in fairness” to a neighbour who had theirs looked at too.

Following this, an email from the housing officer was accusatory and lacked respect, stating that the position of the resident’s camera was clear evidence that she was “trying to provoke her neighbours”.

Another visit was planned due to ongoing tension between the resident and her neighbour. This time, the housing officer did email the Independent Mental Health Advocacy prior to the visit, but was vague on the details and failed to consider the needs of the resident, who had just the day before reported worsening mental health.

The housing officer’s insistence that the resident could not refuse to engage with them and that they needed to be able to address concerns as they arose was a further example of the housing officer either not understanding, or not applying their duty under the Equality Act 2010.

Two senior members of staff found no evidence that the case had been mishandled and insisted that the housing officer would not be changed – but did not consider any failings under Equality Act or its own safeguarding policy.

The Independent Mental Health Advocacy soon asked to have the resident’s housing officer changed, saying contact from him was exacerbating the resident’s mental health. Contact was causing mixed messages and misunderstanding. There was also no evidence that the senior members of staff spoke to either the resident or the Independent Mental Health Advocacy as part of the investigation.

The landlord failed to take the concerns raised seriously or conduct a fair investigation. The attitude of the landlord towards a professional advocate was neither appropriate nor solution focused, and its allegations that the Independent Mental Health Advocacy had been confrontational, dismissive and contributed to difficulties in communication with the resident, based on what appears to be its limited investigation, was also neither fair nor reasonable.

The resident and Independent Mental Health Advocacy described the housing officer’s approach as “aggressive and intimidating” and said she had never been spoken to in that manner in all her years in the role. This carried on until the housing officer left three months later.

The Ombudsman ordered the landlord to apologise to the resident in person, pay £1,000 in compensation and review its Vulnerabilities and Reasonable Adjustment policies.

In its learning from this case, the landlord said it has provided staff with refresher training on these issues, undertaken a review of its staffing structure and will implement a new Enforcement Policy later this year.

Richard Blakeway, Housing Ombudsman, said: “Under the Equality Act, the landlord had the legal duty to make reasonable adjustments, such as how it provided information to the resident and communication through a representative or intermediary.

“At the heart of this case, there were three different officers involved, but none took appropriate action.

“Failure to appropriately respond to the resident’s requests for reasonable adjustments or to act in accordance with its own safeguarding policy caused serious detriment.

“The failure by the landlord to demonstrate that it had taken steps to ensure it understood the needs of the resident also led to missed opportunities which adversely impacted the resident.

“On top of this, there was a complete absence of recognition, acknowledgement or apology from the landlord for its failings, or to take any action to put things right.”

In all cases of severe maladministration, the Ombudsman invites the landlord to provide a learning statement.

Tandridge District Council learning statement

It is recognised by the Council that there have been failings in the handling of this case and insufficient consideration given to the needs and vulnerabilities of the resident on this occasion. We are sincerely sorry for the distress and inconvenience these failings have caused.

Whilst it was recognised by the Ombudsman that several reasonable adjustments were made during the handling of the case, we have learnt several lessons from this case and have since undertaken many improvements to ensure that our internal processes are as robust as possible including:

Refresher training for all customer facing staff is to be delivered on Safeguarding, Vulnerability, Equality and Diversity and requirements for reasonable adjustments.

A review of the staffing structure has already been undertaken as part of a Council wide programme to ensure a single point of contact (dedicated housing officer) is assigned to a case. Each case is reviewed monthly by senior officers within the department to ensure necessary support and signposting measures are in place for residents and all options to resolve matters are considered.

As part of the new staffing structure, a Resident Engagement Manager has been appointed to oversee all aspects of tenant engagement and will focus on supporting those with vulnerabilities to access Council services. The Councils Tenant and Leaseholder Engagement Strategy underpins this work.

Both the Councils Vulnerability Policy and Equality and Diversity Scheme are easily accessible on the website.

All staff responsible for managing complaints have attended recent training to ensure complaints are managed appropriately and in accordance with best practice and regulation.

To ensure best practice and meet changes to legislation, the Councils Anti-Social Behaviour process was reviewed in 2022. This process will form part of a Council wide Enforcement Policy due for completion later in 2023.

We highly value our relationship with the Housing Ombudsman service and we’re grateful to them for allowing an opportunity to highlight learnings from this case to help drive service improvements which benefit our residents

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