Watchdog upholds 27 complaints over 'systemic' failures by Haringey Council

Family stuck indoors

A family was left in a B&B for a 'prolonged period' because Haringey Council officers either did not know the law or chose to ignore it, the local government ombudsman has found. - Credit: nicoletaionescu/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A vulnerable family was forced to live in a bed and breakfast for a “prolonged period” because Haringey Council officers either did not understand the law or chose to ignore it, a watchdog said.

Their complaint was among 27 upheld against Haringey by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman in 2020/21 - more than any other London council.

The Labour-run authority was advised to take “urgent” action over “systemic issues” in its complaints handling.

Its Lib Dem opposition said the time and effort involved in going to the ombudsman meant these cases were “likely to be the tip of the iceberg”.

Homeless Family

The ombudsman found the council failed to follow correct procedures when contacted by the family, whose landlord was evicting them.

As a result, they were forced to live in circumstances which “would be challenging for anybody”, the ombudsman wrote, but were “significantly more difficult” for them due to their “vulnerabilities”.

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In a letter to the council, ombudsman Michael King wrote: “We concluded that it was only our intervention and decision to investigate that prompted you to act.

“We found evidence that some of your officers were unaware of current law, or your own procedures, or had chosen to ignore them.”

The council was ordered to pay compensation to the family for every week they remained in the B&B and to retrain staff on homelessness legislation.

Worse than Average

Statistics published by the ombudsman last week showed 75% of complaints investigated against Haringey were upheld, compared to an average of 72% in comparable councils.

In only seven per cent of cases, the council had provided a “satisfactory remedy” before the ombudsman became involved.

The average is 12%.

Haringey Council

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman upheld 27 complaints against Haringey in 2020/21. - Credit: Google Streetview

“Overall, your council’s complaint handling and responses to this office have fallen below the standards we expect," Mr King wrote.

“The concerns I have are indicative of corporate, systemic issues and I ask that you urgently consider your council’s approach to all aspects of its complaint handling.”

In 24 cases in 2020/21, remedial action was ordered. In eight of those, Haringey missed the deadline.

“Several involved simple and straightforward recommendations, such as the issue of an apology or a payment,” wrote Mr King.

“While I acknowledge the pressures councils are under, such delays add to the injustice already suffered by complainants.

“I reported my concerns about delays in the remedial process last year and it is concerning that the issues persist."

Ongoing Failures

The letter highlighted one case in which Haringey’s failure to comply with remedial action in 2019/20 had led to a second complaint in 2020/21.

The council had overpaid a resident's housing benefit, then commenced recovery action to reclaim the money without informing them of their appeal rights.

The ombudsman ordered the council to suspend the recovery process until the appeal.

But, wrote Mr King: “You failed to take the action you had agreed to, resulting in a new complaint being registered for non-compliance.”

The council was ordered to apologise, refund payments taken from the resident after the ombudsman’s decision and suspend the recovery process as originally instructed.

Mr King said this had drained “significant additional resources... from my office and your council".

The Council

Luke Cawley-Harrison, leader of Haringey’s opposition, echoed the ombudsman’s call for an “urgent review” and demanded “wholesale change” to residents' treatment.

“It’s simply not good enough,” he said.

“Many residents in Haringey will not be surprised that their borough is the worst in London for complaints against the council.

“These statistics reflect the numerous cases we have had raised with us by residents who have been failed by the council rather than supported.”

Council leader Peray Ahmet, who took over in May, said the council would “learn lessons” from the ombudsman’s findings.

“I am determined that under my watch we will make sure the residents of Haringey will be treated differently in future,” she said.

“The council has already apologised for the mistakes we made in these specific cases and have taken steps to fix them.

“The wellbeing of residents is a priority for all of us in Haringey and I expect us all to deliver services to the highest standards for them.”