Lime Legal

Fobbed off

Published 02 January 2024

Pregnant and escaping domestic violence, Mary was repeatedly refused assistance by Thurrock council. She tells Bill Rashleigh what it feels like to be the victim of ‘gatekeeping’

In November, the local government ombudsman upheld a complaint against Thurrock council in Essex for repeatedly failing to take homelessness applications from a pregnant young woman, following a Shelter complaint.

The ombudsman ruled it a clear-cut case of gatekeeping – when local authorities prevent people from exercising their legal right to make a homeless application. Fobbed off once by the council before her baby was born, Mary Williams was dismissed twice more after her daughter’s birth.

Even when she was sleeping on a friend’s sofa bed, alongside that friend’s elderly aunt, and her baby was sleeping in a car seat on the floor, Mary was still denied the assistance she was legally entitled to. Speaking exclusively to ROOF, Mary said: ‘I’ve been through so much and I’m trying to pull myself together now. I hardly sleep and I’m always upset. Sometimes I get so angry and frustrated about how hard the council have made my life and my daughter’s life.’

In his report, the ombudsman said: ‘I am aware of the intense pressures councils face in dealing with homelessness applications...[But] it is vitally important that the drive to meet targets to reduce the number of homeless acceptances...does not lead councils to adopt a gatekeeping approach whereby homeless applicants who are eligible for help are turned away.’

His words echo those of the housing and planning minister Yvette Cooper, who in April wrote to all chief housing officers saying: ‘I do want to see a continued reduction in homelessness numbers but that must be achieved through more effective help, not as a result of a gatekeeping approach. It is critical that vulnerable households should not be denied the assistance they need.’

ROOF first investigated this issue of gatekeeping in June 2014. We uncovered plenty of anecdotal evidence from housing advisors and solicitors that some councils were avoiding their duty to homeless people. In June 2015, we provided the first hard evidence that local authority homeless officers were coming under pressure to bring down the number of people they accepted as statutorily homeless. The ombudsman’s ruling shows that the law is still being flouted and that, despite the minister’s written demand, her orders have yet to be universally followed on the frontline.

The impact gatekeeping has on people’s lives is rarely monitored. However, Mary agreed to talk to ROOF about her experiences on the grounds that: ‘I’ve been through so much. I might just be one girl who thinks she can change things, but I know what I went through and I don’t want anyone to have to go through the same thing.’

Mary’s dealings with the council began when she was pregnant and staying temporarily with a friend in Thurrock. A British citizen, she had recently returned to the UK from Nigeria after fleeing domestic violence from her husband. Her friend asked her to leave, so Mary went to the council for help. ‘Although my pregnancy was showing they told me to go and see a doctor and bring proof that I was pregnant. I did that and went back to the council but they said you haven’t had the baby yet so there’s nothing we can do. They were so rude to me. They told me to go to Citizens Advice, who told me I had a good case. Citizens Advice told me to go back to the council but the council sent me back to Citizens Advice again saying there was nothing they could do. I got so stressed I was going back and forth, back and forth. Each time I went to the council, they said there was nothing they could do.’

It was left to Citizen’s Advice to find Mary a place in a women’s refuge in Harlow, Essex. ‘I had no choice. I was seven months pregnant, I was tired and stressed and couldn’t eat or sleep. It was too much. I was getting so angry and frustrated that sometimes I felt it was hurting my baby.’

Mary was still in the women’s refuge when her daughter was born. ‘I went into labour in the refuge. I was screaming and crying and there was no-one there to hold my hand.’ She returned to the refuge with her newborn baby after coming out of hospital and went back to the council for assistance. This time a homelessness application was taken. However it was later cancelled and Mary was not informed or consulted about the decision, despite the fact that she was homeless and in priority need.

Meanwhile, Mary was desperate to get out of the refuge. ‘I was so concerned,’ she says. ‘The refuge was not a good place to bring a newborn baby. I was scared she would get an infection. The council kept telling me I have to go back to the refuge or I would make myself intentionally homeless. So I went back and my baby got an infection.

‘When she got another infection I just made up my mind to leave. I didn’t care. I just packed what I could carry and left. I had to get out for my baby’s sake.’

Mary returned to her friend’s house in Thurrock, where she slept on the sofa. ‘We all slept together - me, my baby and my friend’s auntie who is disabled. Sometimes my baby would fall out so I had to put her in the car seat to sleep.’

Social services expressed concern about the baby’s sleeping conditions so Mary went back to the council for the third time. By then she had applied to another district council in Essex who accepted a full housing duty and made her offers of temporary accommodation. However, not wanting to be separated from her friend, she didn’t accept.

This time, the interviewing officer at Thurrock said Mary might be considered intentionally homeless because she had refused the offers of accommodation made by the other council. Again she was told that the council could not assist and no other advice was offered.

Mary remained on the sofa, but following a violent incident in the house, she made another request to the council saying she wasn’t safe there. ‘We were having arguments and fighting and social services told the council that if anything happened to my baby they wouldn’t be held responsible.’ But once again the need to take a homelessness application wasn’t considered. Instead Mary and her daughter were placed in a hostel.

‘There was smoking and drinking, and my baby was picking up things like cigarette butts. I was scared because she had already had infections.’

‘They told me that the only option was private renting and they found a place for me and I had to move into it. I had to take a crisis loan to help pay. I’ve accumulated so much debt and sometimes, because I can’t afford things, it’s pushed me into places where I shouldn’t go, into meeting people I shouldn’t meet.’

Mary remains bitter about the treatment she has received at the hands of Thurrock: ‘I didn’t choose to be in this situation and I‘ve had no choice from the beginning. I know there aren’t many houses but there’s a way of dealing with people. I am a human being. Simply because I came to them for help doesn’t make me useless and doesn’t mean I don’t want to contribute. No-one chooses to be in that situation.’

For its part, Thurrock council accepted the findings of the ombudsman’s report, saying: ‘It is clear that the service provided at the time was unacceptable and was not sensitive to Miss W’s circumstances.’

But, worryingly, Mary’s case highlights a lack of understanding of homelessness law shown by the very people who’s job it is to apply it. In reaching his decision of maladministration against Thurrock, the ombudsman pointed out ‘serious failings in the officers grasp of the law’. He recorded that: ‘The council’s record keeping was inadequate and that some of the officers who interviewed Miss Williams appeared to misunderstand some of the fundamental concepts of housing law and jumped to conclusions without first making adequate enquiries. He added: ‘The former officer’s case notes reveal that he was muddled about some of the facts and that he misunderstood the concept of intentional homelessness.’

Whilst accepting the ombudsman’s findings, Thurrock council defended itself, saying in a statement: ‘We are confident that many of the questions raised have already been resolved. Training on homelessness and housing law is an on-going process and all staff within the department attend training order to keep up to date with changes in legislation, case law and the code of guidance.’

The statement added: ‘Since the time of Miss William’s approach to us procedures and means of recording approaches have changed dramatically. The homelessness service was the particular focus of a full Audit Commission best value inspection not very much later, where it was found that sensitive competent and trained staff were operating sound processes.’

Mike Redmond, the local government ombudsman, told ROOF: ‘I’ve asked Thurrock to look critically at their own means by which they identify homeless applications. They need to make sure that they make proper full enquiries before they reach a conclusion and in this particular case it appears that they didn’t.

Unfortunately Mary’s experience in Thurrock is not an isolated incident. Redmond said: ‘We have quite a few examples of where the procedures under part seven of the 1996 Act are not properly followed.’ Even with the ombudsman’s ruling, Mary remains sanguine about whether things will change for the better for others who go to the council for help.

‘Fighting the council took a lot from me both emotionally and physically. I’m happy that I won but I’m thinking has it changed anything? The same people who treated me so badly are still there, will this decision make them more understanding to others?’