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Council to pay compensation to single mum after they threw away everything she owned

PUBLISHED: 08:02 30 January 2019 | UPDATED: 15:11 30 January 2019

Barking Town Hall. Pic: Ken Mears

Barking Town Hall. Pic: Ken Mears

Archant

A homeless mother-of-three was “devastated” after Barking and Dagenham Council locked her temporary accommodation while she was in prison and destroyed all her family’s possessions.

The family is set to receive £7,500 after an explosive report by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman found the council had been unfairly “inflexible” and misunderstood its legal duties.

The watchdog also ruled it was unreasonable to expect a homeless prisoner to pay £144.40 a week in storage charges, and to refuse her offer to pay some of the costs.

In their analysis, investigators wrote: “These faults had a devastating impact on Ms X and her children. They lost everything they owned. This included irreplaceable items of sentimental value.

“Officers failed to take account of Ms X’s vulnerability, her lack of income and lack of support from friends or family members.

“The council’s actions caused severe worry and distress for Ms X at a very difficult time in her life.”

The council first accepted it owed a duty of care to the single mother and her children in October 2015 after they were left homeless by rent increases, and they were placed in temporary accommodation.

In March 2016 the woman was arrested and later convicted for an unknown crime and was sentenced to 32 months in prison, with a friend stepping in to look after her children.

The council changed the locks on the property and refused to allow the friend access, so they could not collect any of the children’s belongings, even their school uniforms, and reportedly ended up having to borrow money to buy them clothes.

In May a council contractor removed everything they owned from the property.

Then in November 2016 an officer wrote to Ms X in prison asking for £144.15 per week to be paid by cheque for the storage costs, or else authorise someone to take all of it away.

“Ms X was desperate and wanted to reach an agreement with the council”, the report states.

Over the next month she enlisted the help of a prisoner charity and her local MP, offering to pay £30-£50 per month while she was in prison and set up a repayment plan for after she was released.

But all her offers were dismissed by the council, which in December wrote to her saying: “Since discharging our duty on 11 April 2016 we have no duty to store, nor indeed pay for storage costs.”

Everything the family owned was disposed of somewhere between November 2016 and March 2017.

This included two sofas, two dining tables, a TV, freezer, washing machine and hoover, chests of drawers, mattresses, three bikes and a scooter – as well as 21 boxes, 12 bags, 9 holdalls and 4 plastic crates of unspecified items, which included personal possessions and family photographs.

The inventory produced by the contractor claimed all of it was worth £500, but Ms X and her solicitor estimated the total value at 17,211.99, adding that two laptops, a printer and a microwave were missing from the list.

After her release from prison in August 2017 Ms X spent £6,571 on replacement clothing, bedding and furniture but has not been able to afford to replace everything.

The Ombudsman report concludes that the council caused a “serious injustice” to the family.

It states: “Household appliances and furniture can be replaced. Sadly, the personal items cannot be replaced and the Ombudsman cannot put a monetary value on this loss.

“The council did not comply with its legal duty to notify Ms X when it decided to dispose of her property and give reasons.”

Since the report was published the council has accepted it was at fault and has agreed to pay Ms X £5,000 for the destroyed property and £2,500 for the distress caused.

It has also given new guidance to staff about its legal duties and procedures, which specifically says it is not appropriate to authorise destruction of property where the applicant is in hospital or prison.

A council spokesperson said: “This case was unique in that the resident was on remand and then imprisoned and as a result we were unable to speak to her directly to agree the relevant course of action.

“As a result, we have since reviewed our processes, and if the same circumstance arose again, such a problem would be unlikely to happen.

“We apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

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