The Local Government Ombudsman has today released a report investigating 40 separate complaints from families housed in inadequate B&B or hotel accommodation by Westminster Council for longer than the legal limit of six weeks. The Ombudsman has found that Council is guilty of ‘maladministration causing injustice’ and should pay at least £500 to every family kept in this kind of unsuitable accommodation, with another £500 added for every six-week period thereafter.
In February this year, the flagship Tory council were accommodating over 150 families in unsuitable hotels or B&Bs for longer than the six-week legal limit, rising to a peak of 171 families over the summer. Karen Buck argues that:
‘Evidence is piling up that ill-thought through government policies have piled costs and problems onto local councils. DWP ministers were warned by friends as well as opponents that cuts in housing support would create homelessness and so it has proved. Homeless families suffer but homelessness is an expensive failure all round.’
Earlier this year Westminster were found to be placing families in five-star accommodation where costs ran into thousands of pounds per week, at up to three times the going rate. The majority of Karen Buck’s constituents in this situation were however placed in very poor quality accommodation, often outside of the borough.
‘I have met with several parents who did not have access to cooking facilities and were struggling to afford to feed their children with unhealthy take away food. It is not surprising that homeless families struggle to keep their children in school when they sometimes have to travel for up two hours each way. Forcing vulnerable people to live in these conditions for longer than six weeks, in many cases over a year, is intolerable.’
Karen Buck sent 37 of the 40 cases to the Ombudsman on behalf of her constituents and has calculated that the net total of compensation to be awarded to this group is £89,500. A further 11 families who were placed in unsuitable accommodation for longer than the statutory limit have also been reported to the Council as a formal complaint. The compensation to be awarded to this group is estimated to total a further £22,000.
The LGO report acknowledges that Westminster have sought to address the scale of the demands of rising homelessness, much of it resulting from cuts in housing support locally and across the country. However, Karen Buck argues that Westminster councillors have been ‘cheerleaders’ for the policy which has ended up causing them so many problems. Housing Minister Mark Prisk wrote to the council in November 2012 to warn that that their continued reliance on using B&B accommodation outside of the rules was ‘unlawful and unacceptable’. Under pressure from Karen Buck and the Westminster Labour Group, from August the council have no longer housed any families in B&B accommodation for longer than the six-week legal limit.
Any families or pregnant women who have been housed in B&B or hotel accommodation with shared facilities for longer than six weeks are encouraged to contact Westminster council to make a formal complaint, which will have to take place before any compensation can be offered.
Notes to Editors
· The Six Week B&B rule only applies to families with children and pregnant women
· One of Karen Buck MP’s cases included Ms C, who despite being in a wheelchair was placed in B&B accommodation in Bayswater on the first floor, with no lift, for six months. She was forced to crawl up and down the stairs every morning to sign the attendance sheet to prove she was not living anywhere else and therefore genuinely homeless.
· Another of Karen Buck’s constituents included in the complaint is Mrs D, who lived in B&B accommodation for seven months in 2012. She works shifts as a Nurse and was frequently unable to prepare meals for her and her teenage son as the kitchen in the hotel was often closed when she returned from work. She feels that her work and her son’s A levels suffered as a result of their unsettled housing situation.
· Of the cases that Karen Buck has raised, the average amount of compensation awarded to each family will be £2,355. The highest amount awarded (commensurate with the amount of time spent in B&B or hotel accommodation) is £6,000.
· Any other families or pregnant women who have been housed in B&B or hotel accommodation with shared facilities for longer than six weeks are encouraged to contact Westminster council to make a formal complaint.
· In February this year, Westminster Council were paying £145,000 per week on emergency accommodation for homeless families. Over a period of six months, the total spend on emergency accommodation came to over £3.5m.