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Domestic abuse victim ‘badly let down’ by Brent and Ealing councils

A woman trying to escape an abusive ex-partner received inadequate support from Brent and Ealing councils when she tried to find new council housing, the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) has ruled.

The woman, known as Ms X, first contacted Brent council in August 2014. She was a council housing resident in the borough who had just ended a relationship with her partner because he was abusive.

Ms X, who suffers from depression, PTSD and a heart condition, was seeking new accommodation because her ex-partner had subsequently stalked, harassed and threatened her. This included physically assaulting her and threatening to set fire to her flat.

The LGO found that the housing officer who initially interviewed Ms X failed to follow the council’s commitments on domestic violence procedures. He interviewed her in a public office instead of a private room, did not complete a fear of violence form and did not explain the full range of housing options available.

The housing officer told Ms X he would contact her the following day, but subsequently left his job at the council, and the case was not reassigned. No process was made on Ms X’s case until she contacted the council again two weeks later.

Brent, along with six other borough councils, is a member of the West London Housing Partnership. In 2013 the partnership agreed the West London Domestic Violence Reciprocals Scheme, to prevent social housing tenants who have experienced domestic violence from losing security of tenure and having to make homelessness applications and move to temporary accommodation.

Ms X said she could not stay in council housing in Brent, because her ex-partner lived there and had a number of friends and contacts in the borough, including her next-door neighbour. She also said he had contacts in four of the other boroughs in the partnership so she couldn’t move there.

Ms X was first referred to be considered for rehousing in Ealing on 19 November 2014. The council is obliged to respond to such referrals within five days, but it failed to respond until 3 February 2015, at which point it said it would not offer Ms X accommodation because she does not have children and so is not a priority need. She has now been offered accommodation in another West London borough, but has rejected some offers of property there because she considered the residences unsuitable and unsafe.

In a report into a complaint from Ms X, the LGO said: “Ms X is a vulnerable woman who was badly let down by both councils at a time when she needed timely and sensitive support and advice to help her move away from her abusive former partner.”

The Ombudsman ruled that Brent council must pay Ms X £750 compensation within three months, as well as £250 to Ms Y, a volunteer at a women’s centre who acted as Ms X’s representative.

It found that Ealing council was not at fault for rejecting Ms X’s application, although it said it is a fault in the Domestic Violence Reciprocals Scheme that it does not specify whether applications for rehousing can be rejected on grounds of needs.

The LGO ruled that Ealing must pay Ms X £600 compensation and arrange for a designated officer to oversee the process of all referrals made under the reciprocal scheme.

It also said that Brent should provide refreshment training on domestic violence for its housing staff, and both councils should apologise to Ms X.

Dr Jane Martin, the LGO, said that the case raises concerns for other councils with similar arrangements.

“I welcome the fact that so many local authorities are seeking to work together more closely to deliver better services to their residents,” she said. “However, it is essential that the delivery of those partnerships matches the aspiration of more joined up service provision.

“When people are particularly vulnerable, it is all the more important that organisations work together effectively to remove them from possible harm. This investigation demonstrates the impact when this does not happen.”

The LGA said recently that shared services are now ‘standard practice’ for councils. One in six women’s shelters for victims of domestic violence have closed since 2010.

Earlier this year, LGA reported on Manchester City Council’s redesign of domestic violence services.

Previous LGO reports have criticised councils' failures for supporting working mothers who need childcare and families with complex housing needs.

PSE contacted Brent and Ealing councils for comment but they did not reply at the time of publication.

31 August UPDATE

An Ealing council spokesperson said: “We apologise for the poor handling of this referral from Brent Housing Department and we fully accept the ombudsman’s findings. This isn’t the usual experience of customers referred to us through the West London Domestic Violence Reciprocal Scheme and we will review our processes with other west London borough partners to ensure we work as well as possible for vulnerable residents.”

1 September UPDATE

Cllr Harbi Farah, Brent Council’s Cabinet Member for Housing, said: “We apologise unreservedly for the maladministration which caused this sort of treatment in 2014, and we fully accept the findings and recommendations of the Ombudsman.

“Clearly, there are lessons learnt since it happened,  and we already have taken swift action in providing refresher training on domestic abuse for front-line staff, and have also reviewed the joint-working arrangements across our housing services and those with other boroughs.

“We will continue to take any other action necessary to ensure that there is no repeat of the circumstances of this case.”

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