Council demand for dead Mum’s rent bill
Blunder sees grieving daughter receive letter chasing six months’ worth of ‘arrears’
A BEREAVED daughter has spoken of her anger after she was sent a rent arrears notice for her mother’s sheltered housing flat, six months after she passed away.
Andrea Dunlop’s mother, Hazel Smith, died at her home in Dickens Court in March, aged 65, but her body was left undiscovered in her flat for so long that pathologists were unable to determine a cause of death.
On Friday, September 29, Mrs Dunlop received a letter from Wokingham Borough Council (WBC) demanding rent arrears for the property in Dickens Court totalling £309.23 for the period between April 2 and September 26 – six months after Mrs Smith’s death.
Mrs Dunlop, who lives in Shinfield, told The Wokingham Paper: “The lack of sensitivity, to be honest, beggars belief.”
Mrs Smith moved into Dickens Court, a Wokingham Borough Council (WBC)-run sheltered accommodation in June 2015 and passed away earlier this year, but an inquest was unable to determine the exact date of her death. Her postman had raised the alarm.
At an inquest into her death, held on June 13, housing officers Ann Molloy and Jude White told the coroner, Alison McCormick, that Mrs Smith had requested no contact and had refused to sign a document relating to support.
This claim was refuted by Mrs Dunlop, who has since found the document that Mrs Smith signed, which states she agreed to weekly checks.
Now Mrs Dunlop has been left reeling after receiving the unexpected rent demand.
“The last few months I have been coming to terms with it all. It’s not a question of ‘ could she have survived?’ I guess I’ll never know that, but for me it’s the fact that she was left for such a long time, there’s so many questions that come to mind that I can’t seem to navigate around.
“I never heard from [WBC] again after the inquest, they never followed up, there was never any acknowledgement that any lessons had been learned.
“I run my own business, and if you make a mistake you need to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, and I suppose I haven't really dealt with what happened, so having that letter come through made me reconsider what I wanted to do about it.
“I am now in a better place to do something and I want to tackle them around making sure no-one else falls through the gaps like my mum did.”
Mrs Dunlop feels that there are serious inadequacies and a ‘lack of common sense’ within the council’s sheltered housing programme which need to be addressed.
She said: “It’s obvious they have no governance or control. I am a reasonably strong person, but can you imagine if this is their general approach to the deceased and how they pursue for money? It’s extraordinary.
“I think from the council’s perspective, they are there to provide services to the community and they have lost sight of that.
“Given how hostile I found the council during the inquest process, one of the things that comes to mind for me is that there is a culture at Wokingham that isn’t positive, and clearly they lack the common sense factor. That comes from the top, it isn’t the people on the ground, generally these processes are management-led.
“There were a couple of things about how the sheltered housing was working that came out during the inquest, I got a sense that there is no duty of care, and I think in hindsight, that wasn’t obvious to me when she first went in. The whole point of it, to me, was that there was going to be someone there checking in, being aware of her routines and what she was doing, just giving you that extra set of eyes, but what came out of the inquest was that they really don’t have that capability.
“My guess is that it’s probably the case, not only in Dickens Court, but in all of the sheltered housing, it will be mirrored across all of them.”
Coincidentally, Mrs Smith’s inquest was held on the same day as Ian Andrews’, a man who lived in a sheltered housing unit in Martin Close, Woodley, whose body was left undiscovered for up to two weeks after he died in January.
Mrs Dunlop continued: “I run my own business, I know that empathy costs nothing. If I had been the leader of that council, just reaching out to someone and having that conversation to say, ‘This went wrong, we know and we’re sorry’ – that costs nothing, but the benefit of it is huge. That is what disappoints me, it doesn’t surprise me, but it disappoints me.
“When we were clearing out my mum’s flat, the housing officers were there and it was very much a case of they wanted you out asap. Mum had a lot of fairly new furniture and appliances, and I asked the housing officers if the people living in the development could be given first refusal, as that is what my mum would have wanted.
“They told me it would be fine, but a few weeks later I spoke to one of the neighbours and they said that been refused the furniture.
“I contacted the council who told me that they ‘couldn’t allow it’ as it went against their council process, and the stuff had been given to good causes, but they couldn’t tell me what those good causes were. The neighbour then told me that it had all been destroyed. I don’t know whether it’s true or not because you can’t get a straight answer out of the council.”
Mrs Dunlop said she is concerned that the council has not accepted responsibility for what happened to her mother, and has vowed to pressure them into admitting they were at fault.
She said: “I am going to start lobbying the council to put a bit of pressure on them to demonstrate what they have learned from this experience. I think for my own sanity over the whole episode I need to do something.”
A spokesperson for Wokingham Borough Council said: “We are deeply sorry that this letter was sent and for the distress it has caused. We are writing to Ms Dunlop to apologise and will also call her to do so in person. The rent arrears have been cancelled so there is no remaining debt to the council.”
Hazel Smith, who died earlier this year