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Friday, 26 August 2011

O

O is an Iraqi man in his late 30s. He came to the UK some years ago and made a claim for asylum which was successful. He had been systematically tortured in Iraq and had witnessed family members being raped and murdered. He approached the local authority in 2007 to make a homelessness application after he had been evicted from his privately rented accommodation. After living for one year in B&Bs and temporary accommodation, he was given a one-bedroom flat.

O suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He experiences vivid and violent flash backs and also has seizures. His mental health is fragile and he often cannot cope with simple, every day tasks. His sleep is very poor and he often cannot sleep for days at a time because his mind is racing. He has attempted suicide in the past but has not done so for over one year.

In mid 2010, O's wife and four children joined him in the UK as part of the family reunion scheme. O informed all the relevant departments as soon as his family arrived; he contacted the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Housing & Council Tax Benefit department to confirm that there had been a change in his circumstances. Because O was now responsible for children, he also made a claim for Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit, both of which he will be entitled to.

Shortly after his wife and children arrived in the UK, O approached the local authority's housing department to ask if he could apply for a larger property; he now needed a three bedroom property (one bedroom for him and his wife, one bedroom for the two boys and one bedroom for the two girls). Living in a one bedroom flat with four children would not be manageable. O went in person to the housing department and explained his situation. He took his wife's passport and his children's birth certificates. He also submitted evidence from the UK Border Agency that his wife and children had entered the UK. He was given a form to complete. O completed the form with a friend whose English was better than his and submitted the form in good time.

Two months later, O received a letter from the local authority informing him that he could not be considered for a larger property because he was not in receipt of Child Benefit. According to the local authority's policy, in order to be offered a larger property on the grounds that an applicant is responsible for children, the applicant needs to show evidence that s/he is in receipt of Child Benefit. O was not yet in receipt of this benefit; Child Benefit claims are notoriously slow, especially when they involve people from abroad.

O tried to call the Child Benefit office to ask how long his claim would take to process but he did not pass the security questions because he did not understand them. He tried again with a friend to help him and he was told that it was uncertain how long his claim would take to process.

O came to the advice centre. He was highly stressed and anxious that he had done something wrong. His caseworker explained that the local authority's policy was different from the law and that there is nothing in law that says a housing applicant needs to show evidence of Child Benefit to 'prove' that s/he is responsible for children. O asked his caseworker to call the Child Benefit office to hurry his claim up. The caseworker was reluctant to do this as she knew that it would not work. Instead, it was agreed that the caseworker would write to the local authority to challenge its decision not to offer O a larger property.

Some weeks later, O came back to the advice centre. He told his caseworker that his children were scared because one of his neighbours kept trying to spit on him and his wife. The caseworker asked him if he had called the police but O said that he did not want to do that. O also told his caseworker that he had been having black-outs and that this had been happening in front of his children. His caseworker told him that she was still waiting for a reply from the local authority about his housing situation.

Nine weeks after she had written to the local authority, O's caseworker received a response. The letter stated that all applicants who were responsible for children and who were applying for housing on that basis were required to show proof of Child Benefit. The letter did not address any of the points the caseworker had raised in relation to the law around this issue.

O's caseworker wrote back to the local authority and included a copy of her initial letter. The caseworker urged the local authority to consider the law rather than its own policy in this case and reminded the local authority that the family in question was a family of six , sharing a one bedroom property, that they were being harassed and threatened by another tenant and that the main applicant's mental health was very fragile at the best of times.

Nearly seven weeks later, the local authority responded to the caseworker's second letter, saying that it sympathised with O's situation but that it had to adhere to its policy. This is emphatically untrue.

O's caseworker is considering referring this case for judicial review on the grounds that the local authority has fettered its discretion.

The case continues.

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