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Newham Council accused of hindering investigations into housing complaints

PUBLISHED: 12:00 01 August 2018

The council have been slammed by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman. Pic: Ken Mears

The council have been slammed by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman. Pic: Ken Mears

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Newham Council has been accused of hindering investigations into housing complaints by causing "unacceptable delays" and refusing to produce evidence when requested.

Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz said her administration would be more transparent at responding to complaints. Pic: Rokhsana FiazMayor Rokhsana Fiaz said her administration would be more transparent at responding to complaints. Pic: Rokhsana Fiaz

In a damning report the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, which probes allegations of maladministration or violation of rights by local authorities, said the council failed to cooperate with two of its investigations in the last year.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and chair of the Commission for Local Administration, described the council’s actions as “completely unacceptable” and “a source of major concern”.

“We have experienced significant and unacceptable delay and resistance in receiving responses to enquiries on two housing cases,” he said.

“The council’s failure to respond appropriately has severely delayed our ability to progress these cases and these problems are ongoing.”

Sir Robin Wales is the borough's previous mayor. Picture by Ellie HoskinsSir Robin Wales is the borough's previous mayor. Picture by Ellie Hoskins

He added that when the ombudsman first said it would be investigating the complaints the council questioned its authority to intervene.

“When we initially made enquiries, the council responded by questioning our jurisdiction and suggested the cases did not fall within our legal remit,” said Mr King.

“We wrote and confirmed our jurisdiction was a matter for us to decide and we did have the legal authority to investigate the issues raised.

“Despite this confirmation, there was then further considerable delay and it was only when we threatened to issue a witness summons to require officers from the council to attend our headquarters in person with the information requested, a response was finally sent.

“Unfortunately, when received, the response was incomplete and raised additional questions. Despite extensions being granted, there was further unacceptable delay and a second witness summons threat had to be made before the information was eventually provided.”

Further delays included council staff confirming their attendance at meetings only to drop out at the last minute and withholding “most” of the files the ombudsman had requested.

“This is completely unacceptable, is a source of major concern for us and despite assurances files would be couriered to our offices, there was again further delay,” said Mr King.

“We hope we will not continue to experience these problems as the investigations into these cases progress and the council ensures it fully and transparently co-operates with the ongoing investigation.”

Newham Council has the highest rate of homelessness in the country. According to figures released by housing charity Shelter, one in 25 people in the borough are classed as homeless.

Last year the ombudsman upheld 35 complaints against the council - many of which related to housing matters.

These included failing to take a homelessness application when it should have done resulting in a woman having to sleep in her van, and incorrectly registering a homeless mother and then taking 14 years to put the mistake right.

In that time the woman and her family missed out on being permanently housed because of the mistake which caused “significant distress”, the 0mbudsman found.

In another case the council took three months to process a pregnant mother’s homelessness application and then housed her and her son in emergency B&B accommodation for almost two years.

Families should not stay in emergency housing for longer than six weeks, according to government guidelines.

Newham’s mayor Rokhsana Fiaz, who was elected in May, said her administration would be more transparent at responding to complaints.

“I welcome the ombudsman’s report,” she said. “I am focused on getting this council to clean up its act.

“What happened under previous administrations cannot be allowed to continue and I am sorry that residents were let down. I won the election on a pledge that people must be at the heart of everything we do, and that includes all our services.

“We must ensure we offer services of high quality and responsiveness in order to minimise the chances of errors happening. We will work positively with complainants if we do get things wrong and will learn from this report going forward.”

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