Council left homeless family 'stuck in cycle of instability', report finds

Redbridge Town Hall

Redbridge Council was found at fault for leaving two schoolchildren in B&B accommodation for more than a year by the Ombudsman. - Credit: Ken Mears

A single mum and her children were left living out of a bed and breakfast for "too long", a damning investigation has found.

Redbridge Council was forced to apologise and pay almost £4,000 in compensation to the woman, after a Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGO) report exposed their plight.

The LGO, which probes allegations of maladministration and rights violations by local authorities, found the living conditions had a "significant impact" on the family.

The two children's schooling was affected as they had to share a bed and suffered disrupted sleep because of the night-time noise, with no room for them to do their schoolwork.

The investigation found the council only offered the family a studio flat or a move to the north or Midlands.

It also found the council failed to consider the disability of the single mum.

The council took more than 13 months to deal with her complaints, causing undue stress on the family, the ombudsman said.

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The council did not make allowances for her poor mental health when dealing with her, and instead misinterpreted her behaviour as "being difficult" and blamed her situation on her lack of co-operation.

Local Government Ombudsman head Michael King. Pic: LGO

Ombudsman Michael King said councils should balance the impact of its housing against the affects it might on children, regardless of which Act it is housing them under. - Credit: Archant

The family was originally placed in B&B accommodation in Redbridge by another unnamed London borough.

The other borough decided the family was "intentionally homeless" because the mother had refused a damp and mouldy flat, which would have exacerbated both her and her children's respiratory conditions.

Instead of making its own decision on whether the family was intentionally homeless, Redbridge accepted the other borough's decision and decided it did not have a duty to house the family under the Housing Act. 

The council placed the family in B&B accommodation from August 2016 to January 2018, and it accepted that this was unsuitable for the last four months.

The investigation found the council could not show it assessed the harm caused to the family by staying in the cramped condition for such a long period, or that it made regular reviews of their situation.

During this time, the council offered the family options including a studio flat – where the three would have had to sleep, eat and do homework in the same room – or accommodation away from the borough in the north or Midlands.

The woman rejected the first because it would be too small, and the second because her older child was due to take GCSE exams in a local school and she had no support network outside London.

The council decided it no longer had any duties to the family as the mother had rejected these options.

Because the family’s living conditions were so poor, the woman suffered increased anxiety, stress and panic attacks.

LGO Michael King said councils should balance the impact of its housing against the effect this might have on children, regardless of which Act the council is housing them under.

"In this case two children were left for far too long in poor accommodation," he said.

"This left them, in their own words, 'stuck in a cycle of instability' and unable to fulfil their potential in school."

A Redbridge Council spokesperson said it "deeply regrets this episode", has accepted the LGO's recommendations and has agreed to apologise to the woman, paying her £3,900.

They said: "We recognise the adverse impact on the family as a result of being placed in B&B accommodation for too long. This is always used as a last resort.

"Sadly, London's housing crisis means that councils invariably find it difficult to avoid placing people in B&B accommodation." 

The council has also agreed to remind its social workers of the need to regularly review B&B placements involving families.

It will produce a joint working protocol for housing and children's services to ensure there is access to a range of housing options, so it can arrange accommodation for families where B&B is not appropriate.

Mr King added: "I hope the council's acceptance that it could have done more to support the woman, given her understandable anxiety and depression, will lead to it dealing with people in difficult situations with more empathy in future."

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