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Two London schoolchildren were left in bed and breakfast accommodation for too long by Redbridge council, according to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman’s investigation has found the living conditions the children were subject to in the bed and breakfast accommodation have had a significant impact on the family.
The two children’s schooling was affected: they had to share a bed and suffered disrupted sleep because of the night-time noise, and there was no room for them to do their schoolwork.
The family was placed in bed and breakfast accommodation in the Redbridge area by another London borough. The other borough decided the family was intentionally homeless because the mother had refused a damp and mouldy flat, which would have exacerbated both her and her children’s respiratory conditions.
Instead of making its own decision on whether the family was intentionally homeless, Redbridge accepted the other borough’s decision, and decided it did not have a duty to house the family under the Housing Act.
The council then placed the family in bed and breakfast accommodation for more than a year under the Children Act.
However, the Ombudsman’s investigation found the council could not show it assessed the harm caused to the family by staying in the bed and breakfast accommodation for such a long period, or that it made regular reviews of their situation.
During this time, the council offered the family options including a studio flat – where the three would have had to sleep, eat and do homework in the same room – or accommodation away from the borough in the north or Midlands.
The woman rejected the first because it would be too small, and the second because her older child was due to take GCSE exams in a local school, and she had no network of support outside the capital. The council decided it then no longer had any duties to the family as the mother had rejected these options.
Because the family’s living conditions were so poor, the woman suffered increased anxiety, stress and panic attacks.
The ombudsman also found the council did not make allowances for her poor mental health when it dealt with her, and instead misinterpreted her behaviour as ‘being difficult’ and blamed her situation on her lack of co-operation.
In this case the council has agreed to apologise to the woman and pay her £3,900. This is made up of £250 a month for leaving her family in unsuitable accommodation for 14 months, £250 for the distress caused by the council failing to consider the effect her anxiety and depression had on her actions or the difficulties she had communicating because of her dyslexia, and a further £150 for her time and trouble caused by the council’s delays dealing with her complaint.
The council has agreed to remind staff that people living in difficult circumstances may have consequent mental health difficulties that cause them distress and impair their ability to adhere to social norms. In such circumstances, the council should consider its duties under the Equality Act and officers may need to adjust their expectations.
The council has also agreed to remind social workers of the need to regularly review bed and breakfast placements involving families. It will produce a joint working protocol for housing and children’s services to ensure there is access to a range of housing options, so it can arrange accommodation for families where bed and breakfast is not appropriate.
Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: "Councils should balance the impact of being housed in bed and breakfast accommodation against the affect this might have on children, regardless of which Act the council is housing them under.
"In this case two children were left for far too long in poor accommodation. This left them – in their own words – ‘stuck in a cycle of instability’ and unable to fulfil their potential in school.
"I hope the council’s acceptance that it could have done more to support the woman, given her understandable anxiety and depression, will lead to it dealing with people in difficult situations with more empathy in future.”