Notting Hill Genesis
4 January 2021
The Housing Ombudsman’s approach to investigating and determining complaints is to decide what is fair in all the circumstances of the case. This is set out in the Housing Act 1996 and the Housing Ombudsman Scheme. The Ombudsman considers the evidence and looks to see if there has been any ‘maladministration’, for example whether the landlord has failed to keep to the law, followed proper procedure, followed good practice or behaved in a reasonable and competent manner.
Both the resident and the landlord have submitted information to the Ombudsman and this has been carefully considered. Their accounts of what has happened are summarised below. This report is not an exhaustive description of all the events that have occurred in relation to this case, but an outline of the key issues as a background to the investigation’s findings.
- The complaint refers to:
- The Landlord’s management of the Resident’s rent account.
- The Landlord’s complaint handling of this matter.
- The Landlord’s handling of repairs to the Resident’s hot water system and heating installations.
- What we can and cannot consider is called the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. This is governed by the Housing Ombudsman Scheme. When a complaint is brought to the Ombudsman, we must consider all the circumstances of the case as there are sometimes reasons why a complaint will not be investigated.
- After carefully considering all the evidence, in accordance the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, the following aspects of the complaint are outside of the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
- Paragraph 39(e) of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme states that: The Ombudsman will not investigate complaints which, in the Ombudsman’s opinion were not brought to the attention of the member as a formal complaint within a reasonable period, which would normally be within 6 months of the matters arising;
- It is noted that the Resident referred to historical issues with the management of her rent account, but there is no evidence of a formal complaint being raised to the landlord about the rent account until December 2019. As the substantive issues become historical, it is increasingly difficult for either the landlord, or an independent body such as the Ombudsman, to conduct an effective review of the actions taken to address those issues. Therefore, whilst the historical incidents provide contextual background to the current complaint, this assessment focuses on events from December 2019 onward.
The Landlord’s handling of the repair to the Resident’s hot water and heating.
- Paragraph 39(a) of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme states that: The Ombudsman will not investigate complaints which, in the Ombudsman’s opinion are made prior to having exhausted a member’s complaints procedure.
- The Resident’s further concerns in relation to her hot water and heating are outside of the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction to adjudicate on at this stage, as the Landlord needs to be provided with the opportunity to investigate and respond to this aspect. It does not appear from the information received that these issues have been raised as a formal complaint to the Landlord or that the Landlord has issues its final response to such a complaint. The Resident will need to contact the Landlord and, if appropriate, raise a separate complaint to get this matter resolved. The Resident may be able to refer a new complaint to The Ombudsman about the recent issues if she remains dissatisfied once the complaint has exhausted the Landlord’s internal complaints process.
- The Resident is an assured tenant of the Landlord.
- The complaint has been raised by the Resident and, at times, by her representative. For clarity, this report will refer to both the Resident and her representative as ‘the Resident’.
Summary of events
- The Resident emailed the Landlord on 4 December 2019 and requested a payment card so that she could pay for her weekly heating charge. She stated that she had requested this multiple times and had received a number of text messages and letters highlighting arrears on her rent account. She said she had not been able to pay these since she did not have a payment card. She requested an explanation as to why this had not been sent previously and for an up-to-date balance of her rent account. She stated that the arrears on her account seem to have doubled despite having confirmation that her housing benefit payments were up to date. She requested a full analysis of her arrears and an explanation of how these occurred.
- On 18 December 2019 the Resident raised a formal complaint to the Landlord regarding its management of her rent account over the previous two years. The email stated the following:
- The Resident’s rent account had been in arrears for a number of years and the Landlord had been unable to provide a consistent or accurate explanation of the problem.
- The arrears had been incorrectly attributed to the result of a Housing Benefit Blameless Recovery matter by the Landlord, who had not provided any reliable analysis of the arrears. The Resident had received multiple phone calls from the Landlord, who demanded money without providing evidence of the amount which was owed. This had caused her heightened anxiety and made her feel unsafe in her home.
- When the Landlord finally accepted that the arrears were not a result of the Blameless Recovery action and it had provided incorrect information, it had not provided an apology or acknowledgement of the error that had been made. She stated that the Landlord continued to pressure her to clear the arrears on her account without providing any analysis or explanation of how the arrears had occurred and, crucially, without acknowledging its role in creating the problem in the first place by giving her conflicting information about her liability to pay this.
- The Resident had requested a full investigation from the local authority regarding her benefits. This had uncovered a historic benefits issue and resulted in an award of back-dated housing benefit, which cleared the outstanding arrears at the time.
- She stated that the Landlord remained largely unresponsive to her requests was not responding to any emails. She feared that the Landlord would continue to mismanage her rent account, continue to harass her with phone calls requesting payment and fail to provide her with correct information regarding her rent account in a timely manner.
- The Resident stated that she hoped the intervention of her local MP would help ensure that the Landlord acknowledges and addresses its errors and tries to ensure it did not repeat its errors. She requested that all correspondence be written and not by phone or text.
- The Resident emailed the Landlord the same day to state that she had received a final demand letter in the post which had caused her significant emotional distress. The Resident confirmed that the Landlord had continually failed to provide her with an explanation of these arrears or the means for her to make payments. The Resident stated that this threatening letter was hugely inappropriate days before Christmas. She requested that the Landlord take action to de-escalate the matter, provide her with a payment card so that she could make payments, provide an explanation of the arrears and offer support to address the issue, and to respond to her previous requests in relation to her rent and service charge.
- On 10 February 2020 the Resident emailed the Landlord in relation to the complaint and expressed concern that she had not received a response. The Landlord responded the same day and apologised for any worry this may have caused. It confirmed that the complaint had been forwarded to its complaints team and that the Resident would receive a response shortly.
- On 11 February 2020 the Resident emailed the Landlord and stated that she had received an acknowledgement email, although had not had contact with the Landlord for two months. She confirmed that this was typical of her experience with the Landlord and requested that her complaint be escalated to the final stage of the Landlord’s complaint procedure so the matter could be resolved swiftly. The Landlord responded the following day and stated that the complaint had been assigned to a member of staff to investigate. It stated that it would not be able to escalate the complaint until the member of staff had issued a stage one response.
- The Resident responded to the Landlord on 17 February 2020 and stated that multiple emails had been sent to the member of staff who had not responded. She stated that asking the same member of staff to take the matter forward would be a conflict of interest as their inaction had led to the complaint being raised in the first place. The Resident requested that a senior manager who was not responsible for the issues raised in the complaint intervened.
- On 25 February 2020 the Landlord contacted the Resident and apologised for any distress that the final demand letter may have caused. It explained that the letters were generated automatically as soon as tenants fall into arrears. It confirmed that it would pause the system in order to prevent further letters going out to the Resident. It stated that the Resident was in receipt of housing benefit, although there was a shortfall of £104.16 in her monthly rent payment. It stated that it would order a rent card and would be able to set up a payment plan to reduce the arrears on her account. The Landlord confirmed the same day that a different member of staff would be handling her complaint.
- The Resident emailed the Landlord on 26 February 2020 and stated that this was the first time the Landlord had identified a housing benefit shortfall on her rent account. The Resident requested information in relation to how long the shortfall had been affecting the rent account and provide a rent statement covering the affected period. She also asked the Landlord to confirm whether any of the arrears related to her weekly heating charge and questioned how this was maintained and managed on the rent statement.
- The Resident sent a further email the same day to confirm that the weekly rent for the property was £188.52 including a heating charge of £10.33 which was not covered by her housing benefit. She stated that her housing benefit was paid four-weekly, and she confirmed that the benefits payment covered her rent minus the heating charge of £41.32 (£10.33 a week). She stated that if this was the case, any arrears on the account were due to the Landlord’s failure to provide an explanation of the problem and a payment card. The Resident stated that she was able to pay her weekly heating charge as well as a minimum contribution towards bringing her rent account up to date.
- On 3 March 2020 the Resident sent a further email to the Landlord to confirm a payment card had now been received. She also requested a response to her previous email on 26 February 2020 and a clear itemised breakdown of her service charges to determine which were eligible for housing benefit and which she was liable to pay.
- The Resident sent a further email to the Landlord on the same day and requested that her complaint be escalated to a senior manager for investigation as she had been given no timeframe as to when she would receive a response and had been made to wait. She stated that the Landlord had breached its own Complaint’s Policy and, whilst the more recent communication was welcome, it was not a formal response to her formal complaint which she had raised in December 2019.
- On 1 April 2020 the Landlord issued a stage one response to the Resident and stated the following:
- It apologised for the issues she had been facing when trying to get some clarity regarding her rent account. It stated that the letters had been automated and it apologised for any delay in response from the previous member of staff handling the complaint. It explained that the previous member of staff had been on sick leave for an extended period and it had now assigned a new officer to manage her property.
- It apologised that the Resident had four separate housing officers in six months. It stated that there were inadequate handover procedures in place to manage staff changes and offered £100 compensation as compensation for this matter.
- It explained that as its staff were currently working from home, it was unable to provide written responses by letter.
- It had viewed her account and found that the Resident’s account was in arrears by around £400. It explained that this was due to the heating and electricity charges not being paid. It acknowledged that the Resident had been paying her heating charge each week for the past two weeks.
- It acknowledged that the Resident had agreed to pay an additional £3.85 per week in order to diminish the arrears on her account. The Landlord confirmed that as long as the Resident continued to make these payments, no further legal action would be taken which may result in the loss of her home. It confirmed that it had frozen the arrears actions on its system and that the Resident should ignore any post she may receive in the next few days regarding her arrears.
- On 29 April 2020 the Resident emailed the Landlord to escalate her complaint, and stated the following:
- She stated that the Landlord’s response did not reflect a genuine understanding of the emotional distress caused to her and her family by its failings over a number of years. She stated that its response did not show any appreciation for the seriousness of the situation. She and her children feared they would lose their home as a result of the notice of seeking possession letter and the Landlord had not responded to any communication attempting to resolve the matter.
- She felt that the Landlord’s failure to respond to her complaint in a timely manner showed a major failure in the Landlord’s systems and its duty of care to her as a vulnerable tenant. She stated that she and her family lived under the threat of eviction from December 2019 until the Landlord’s intervention in late March 2020.
- The Resident stated that she felt the offer of £100 compensation was not adequate and saw this amount to be a further example of the Landlord’s failure to recognise the impact of its failings. She requested an award of compensation which reflected a genuine understanding of the seriousness of its failings and the impact on her and her family.
- She expressed dissatisfaction in relation to the conduct of her new housing officer, who she described as ‘rude’ and ‘aggressive’. She felt he had been dismissive of her requests for correspondence to be in writing rather than unsolicited phone calls. She stated that there had been a swift breakdown in communication, and she felt that she was unable to contact the housing officer for support as a result. She stated that the housing officer’s behaviour towards her showed that the Landlord had not learnt from the issues raised in her complaint.
- She requested that a senior manager reviewed and investigated the historical and ongoing failures highlighted in her complaint and for the Landlord to explain how and why the errors occurred and provide any measures which would be undertaken to prevent similar situations in the future.
- She requested that the Landlord provide her with an apology from its CEO to be sure that it had taken the matter seriously. She also wished for her housing officer to be changed, if this was not possible, and she requested for measures to be put in place to prevent any discrimination by said housing officer.
- The Landlord responded on 22 May 2020 and apologised for the delay in providing a response. It confirmed that it had now begun the review of the Resident’s complaint and would issue a response the next week.
- On 3 June 2020 the Landlord issued its final response to the Resident and stated the following:
- It acknowledged that the Resident had not received a response until 10 February 2020 when the complaint was escalated. Following this the Resident had regular communication with the Landlord’s staff and had been given an explanation for the current arrears position on the rent account. It noted that a formal response was not issued until 1 April 2020 and apologised for the significant and unacceptable delay. It stated that the response to the original complaint, whilst overdue, did address the issues raised.
- It stated that the Resident was allocated a housing officer in September 2019 and it had introduced a new arrears management system which would in some cases automatically pursue and outstanding payments. This included a series of automated contacts via email, text and written letters, up to the Notice of Seeking Possession. The Resident’s account had been placed on hold to prevent future correspondence about rent arrears, although due to a system reset, this had been reinstated and another final demand letter was sent on 11 May 2020; it stated that it had been in touch regarding this as it had affected a number of tenants
- It had reviewed the Resident’s account and confirmed that she fell into arrears in September 2019 as a result of a shortfall in her Housing Benefit of £10.33 a week. This led to a week-on-week increase in debt on her rent account. The letter noting the arrears and the Notice of Seeking Possession were both sent as part of the Landlord’s automated process. The Landlord apologised that the Resident did not have direct contact with its staff during this time. It believed this was due to the extended absence of her allocated housing officer.
- As her previous housing officer remained absent, the Resident had been allocated a new housing officer. The Landlord apologised that the initial communication had been unsatisfactory and stated that this matter had been discussed with the officer directly. It stated that it would not be possible to change the Resident’s housing officer at this time, although it had taken steps to ensure contact where possible is via letter or email rather than via telephone as requested.
- It acknowledged that an agreement had been made and the Resident would make an additional payment of £3.85 each week to reduce the arrears on her account. It noted that the Resident’s rent increased from 6 April 2020 which left a £10.55 shortfall for her heating charges. It stated that her weekly payments should therefore increase to £14.40 to maintain an arrears reduction amount of 3.85 per week.
- It confirmed that it had offered £100 compensation in recognition of the inconvenience and distress caused to the Resident by the various changes to her housing officer. It recognised that there had been a significant delay in providing a formal response and increased the offer to £200 in consideration of the delay. The amount may be paid to her directly via BACS transfer or credited to her rent account to reduce the current debt.
- It stated that it was its role as a landlord to communicate with its tenants where there is a shortfall in their rental payments and where arrears arise on their accounts. The automated process had been designed to ensure that this is flagged at the earliest possible opportunity. It advised that whilst the Resident continued to maintain regular payments to reduce the outstanding debt, it would be taking no further action with regards to her tenancy.
Assessment and findings
The Landlord’s management of the Resident’s rent account.
- The Landlord has acknowledged that it is its role as a Landlord is to communicate with its tenants where there is a shortfall in their rental payments and where arrears arise on their accounts. It would also be appropriate for the Landlord’s staff to be able to answer questions at the earliest opportunity about a Resident’s rent account and determine the cause of any arrears and to respond in a clear and effective way. It would also be best practice for the Landlord to consider residents’ requests for alternative methods of payment and accommodate such requests where possible to prevent any arrears.
- In this case, the Resident spent significant time chasing the Landlord to request a payment card and for information about the arrears on her account prior to raising her complaint. This Service acknowledges that the Landlord may not be able to provide information as to why an explanation of the arrears had not been provided by its staff at an earlier date, due to changes in staff and this being an issue over a number of years, but it has not offered an explanation for its most recent failures in communication with the Resident and confirmed why the arrears on her rent account were not explained sooner. The Resident may have had the opportunity to prevent these arrears growing should she have had a payment card sent sooner and if she were made aware of how these arrears had accumulated. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that the Resident was given direct advice on other ways to make payment and it would be the Landlord’s responsibility to provide such advice in this situation. Furthermore, as the Resident is in receipt of housing benefit, a full explanation of the arrears and how they accumulated would have been necessary as the Resident may not have been liable for these costs. If so, she may have needed an explanation from her landlord to assist her with resolving the benefits discrepancy with the local authority.
- There is evidence to show that the Resident had been seeking an explanation regarding her arrears for an extended period and had been living under the threat of eviction, with no direct communication and no payment card. Whilst the Landlord has reasonably explained that the processes for sending final demand letters and the Notice of Seeking Possession were automatic, it has not acted reasonably as it has not fully acknowledged the distress that its lack of communication would have caused the Resident. In view of the significant distress caused to the Resident and her family, the Landlord should write to the Resident and apologise for the distress it may have caused. It should also offer an award of compensation in recognition of the extended time taken to provide a payment card, its lack of communication and failure to provide an accurate analysis of her arrears in a timely way.
- The Landlord has apologised for the inconvenience caused to the Resident by having multiple housing officers over a short period of time and offered £100 compensation. In this instance, whilst the Landlord has offered appropriate redress for one of its service failings, it has not acknowledged the wider impact of its lack of communication. The Landlord’s poor communication with the Resident during this period can be attributed to poor record keeping. A landlord would be expected to have clear records of any communication with all tenants, which is easily accessible by all members of staff who require access as part of their role. The Landlord should have appropriate processes in place to avoid disruption to tenants when members of staff are absent.
- This Service can appreciate that due to the lockdown response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the landlord may have changed the way in which its staff work; however, this does not account for the poor communication at earlier stages of the complaint. Furthermore, the Landlord has attributed the delay in providing information to this Service to staff absence. This is unreasonable as other relevant members of the Landlord’s staff should be able to view records and respond to a resident’s request or a request from this Service. Some degree of staff absence is to be expected and the Landlord should reasonably make provision for managing this and ensuring a consistent service for its tenants. The Landlord should review its record keeping ensuring that wherever possible it can provide a seamless service should members of its staff fall absent.
- The Landlord’s Complaints Policy states that it has a two-stage complaint process. At stage one the Landlord should acknowledge the complaint within two working days and provide a written response within 10 working days. In exceptional circumstances the timescales may need to be changed, and in these cases it would agree a new timescale with the resident. If the resident remains dissatisfied with the response, they may escalate their complaint to stage two of the process, in which the complaint would be reviewed within 20 working days.
- The Resident raised her initial complaint on 18 December 2019 on the basis that she had experienced issues gaining a clear explanation of the arrears on her rent account for a number of years. The Landlord provided a formal stage one response to the Resident’s complaint on 1 April 2020 after some communication discussing the arrears on her account. The delay in providing a stage one response to the Resident’s complaint was unreasonable as it was outside the Landlord’s complaint handling procedure by 62 working days. The Landlord has not provided a suitable explanation for this delay, although has offered an additional £100 compensation in recognition of the length of time taken to provide a formal response.
- Furthermore, the Landlord has not acted appropriately as it has not fully acknowledged or addressed the points raised by the Resident in her stage one complaint, primarily her concern regarding the time taken to provide an analysis of her arears. The Resident has stated that this failure was ongoing for a number of years and caused significant emotional distress, and she confirmed that these failings had led to her complaint. The Landlord has not acknowledged this matter in either of its complaint responses or provided an explanation as to why it took a lengthy amount of time to provide an explanation, nor has it sufficiently apologised for the emotional distress it may have caused during this time.
- There is no evidence to suggest that the Landlord has carried out a thorough investigation into the failings which led to the original complaint or the impact on the Resident during this period or understood the impact this may have had on the Resident. Whilst the Landlord had offered an additional award of £100 compensation in recognition of its delay in providing a formal stage one response, this is not proportionate to the level of distress that may have been caused by its failure to fully investigate the cause for the Resident’s initial complaint. In view of this, the Landlord should make a further award of compensation in relation to the inconvenience caused by failing to address her concerns fully.
- In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, there was maladministration by the Landlord in respect of its management of the Resident’s rent account.
- In accordance with paragraph 54 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme, there was maladministration by the Landlord in respect of its complaint handling.
The Landlord’s management of the Resident’s rent account.
- The Landlord has not reasonably addressed the delay in providing a payment card so that the Resident could make payments toward the arrears on her rent account. It has also failed to acknowledge the impact of its failure to communicate clearly or provide a breakdown of her arrears so that they can be managed and the impact of the final demands and telephone calls requesting payment whilst not providing direct communication in response to the Resident’s queries.
- The Landlord has acknowledged that there was a significant delay in providing a stage one formal response and offered compensation in view of this. Although it has not explained the reasons for this delay, which is unreasonable. Furthermore, the Landlord has not fully addressed the Resident’s reasons for complaint or acknowledged that its failure to provide information about the arrears at an earlier stage has inconvenienced the Resident.
- The Ombudsman orders that the following actions be carried out within the next four weeks:
- The Landlord is to pay the Resident £350 comprised of;
- £100 in recognition of the distress and inconvenience caused by the repeated changes to the Resident’s Housing Officer as previously offered.
- £100 in recognition of the distress and inconvenience caused by the Landlord’s communication with the Resident.
- £150 in recognition of the distress caused by the Landlord’s complaint handling.
- The Landlord is to pay the Resident £350 comprised of;
- The Landlord should consider the following recommendations:
- The Landlord should consider carrying out staff training in relation to the structure of rent accounts, so staff can provide accurate information to residents when requested.
- The Landlord should take steps to improve its record keeping so that another staff member can provide information regarding a resident’s account when the main member of staff responsible for the account is absent.
- The Landlord should consider carrying out complaint handling training to ensure complaint responses address all aspects of residents’ complaints going forward.