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Which Ombudsman should I complain to? Matthew Warburton - 14/12/2012

complaint_woman_300In October, the Housing Ombudsman consulted on a draft scheme for his work from 2013, reflecting the changes introduced by the Localism Act, including the extension of his remit to include council landlords. Comments are due by 15 December, and I am currently finalising ARCH's response.

The other major change reflected in the Ombudsman's draft scheme is the role of Designated Persons, who may be a local councillor, MP or a designated panel. Currently, a complainant can go to the Ombudsman if they have tried and failed to get a satisfactory response through the council's or social landlord's own complaints process.

This applies whether the complainant is a council tenant approaching the Local Government Ombudsman or a housing association tenant approaching the Housing Ombudsman. From April, tenants who have not got satisfaction through a landlord's own complaints process will be expected to give a Designated Person the opportunity to resolve the complaint, or wait 8 weeks, before approaching the Housing Ombudsman.

When I blogged on the Ombudsman's proposals on 19 October I said I found little to quarrel with. That remains my view. But there is one important issue on which the proposals are silent, which I do think needs to be raised, and which is a problem primarily for ARCH members and their local residents.

The Housing Ombudsman's remit extends only to councils' landlord functions, or, as the legislation has it, to "housing activities insofar as they relate to the provision or management of social housing". All other complaints about the activities of councils, including housing activities not within this definition, remain the responsibility of the Local Government Ombudsman. And, in relation to these complaints, the provisions relating to Designated Persons do not apply.

This looks to me like a recipe for confusion - mostly for complainants who may be unclear where to go if their problem has not been resolved through a council's complaints process, but also for councillors and MPs unsure whether they have a role as a Designated Person in a particular case that is brought with them.

Not being a lawyer, I am hazy about exactly how to interpret the provisions of the statute defining the Ombudsman's remit, but it seems likely that housing functions which are still performed by councils which have transferred their stock remain with the Local Government Ombudsman - not just private sector housing activities and the strategic housing role, but also administering homelessness and the housing register.

If this is right, then there is a real possibility of there being a significant number of complaints which are either tricky to allocate to the right Ombudsman or potentially involve both. Almost 10 per cent of the Housing Ombudsman's caseload and a quarter of the housing complaints handled by the Local Government Ombudsman last year relate to the allocation of housing.

From April such complaints may be expected to stay with the Local Government Ombudsman if they relate to priority on the housing list, but go to the Housing Ombudsman if they concern the letting process. Or, the Local Government Ombudsman will remain responsible where a complaint is about the waiting list for new applicants, but the Housing Ombudsman will deal with tenants complaining about not getting a transfer.

Where exactly to draw the boundary may be of importance to the two Ombudsmen and interested lawyers, but hardly anyone else. Few complainants are likely to care much which Ombudsman takes their complaint, provided that their complaint is resolved to their satisfaction. What needs to be avoided is action on complaints being delayed or frustrated because they are raised with the "wrong" Ombudsman. ARCH wants to see the two Ombudsmen working together to make sure this does not happen.

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