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Cheshire West & Chester Council (19 016 964)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax support

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 17 Mar 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Ombudsman found no fault on Mr T’s complaint about the way the Council dealt with his Council Tax account. The Council reassessed his council tax reduction within a month of receiving details of his Universal Credit claim. It reassessed it monthly as his Universal Credit claim changed monthly. There was no evidence of an £800 overcharge. Parts of Mr T’s complaint are outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.

The complaint

  1. Mr T complains the Council’s:
      1. council tax reduction scheme does not work as it fails to take account of claimants’ fluctuating incomes; and
      2. calculations on council tax demands were wrong, such as those received within 4 days of each other.

As a result, he spent much time pursuing this with the Council and was overcharged £800 over the last 2 years.

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What I have investigated

  1. The paragraph at the end of this draft decision explains why we have not investigated:
  • any complaint Mr T has against the Council before August 2018; and
  • complaint a).

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
  2. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  3. We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)

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Council’s Council Tax Reduction Scheme (2020/21)

  1. A discretionary fund helps applicants who are considered to suffer exceptional hardship. Applications are considered on a case-by-case basis. (paragraph 26)
  2. There is no right of appeal against decisions under the discretionary fund but there is a right to request a review. (paragraph 26.3)
  3. Anyone wishing to dispute a decision about entitlement to a reduction or the amount must do so in writing within 1 calendar month of the date of decision. It says there is a right of appeal against its decision to the valuation tribunal. It sets out what claimants can and cannot dispute. This in turn impacts on whether there is a right of appeal to the valuation tribunal:
  • Subject to a dispute: eligibility to support; the amount of support, the date of claim, and the date of payment. The valuation tribunal has the power to consider appeals which means the Ombudsman has no jurisdiction; and
  • Not subject to a dispute; premiums, applicable amounts, disregards, the amount of any overpayment, the recoverability of any overpayment (and who it is recovered from), suspension or restoration of support, for example. This means no right of appeal to the valuation tribunal. The Ombudsman has jurisdiction to investigate (paragraph 30).

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered all the information Mr T sent and information from the Council, a copy of which I sent him. I sent a copy of my draft decision to the Council and Mr T.

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What I found

  1. Council Tax Reduction (CTR) replaced council tax benefit and is a reduction in the amount of council tax payable. Since 2013, each council is responsible for running their own local CTR schemes for help with council tax. The amount of discount awarded is based on a claimant’s savings, family make up, and income. It is paid by reducing the council tax owed and issuing a new council tax bill.

Complaint b): calculations of council tax

  1. Mr T complains the Council failed to manage his council tax account properly from 2014. He first claimed CTR in 2017.
  2. The Council explained it bills council tax annually. Any award of CTR is made in advance of the remainder of the financial year to predict an outstanding balance. Changes in income means adjustments to the CTR awarded which in turn impacts on the remaining balance.
  3. In response to his complaint, the Council explained it reassessed his claim every time there was a Universal Credit assessment, except for 2 periods. These 2 periods were because the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) did not provide evidence of him receiving Universal Credit. The Council decided he was not eligible for CTR for them. The Council sent him notification letters at the time but, Mr T did not appeal the decisions. For the sake of clarity, I have not investigated this decision because eligibility decisions are not within our jurisdiction as they can be appealed.
  4. The Council also explained it aimed to reassess his CTR within a month of receiving information from the DWP about his Universal Credit claim.
  5. From October 2018, Mr T says he disputed the amount of council tax demanded by the Council. Over 2 years, he claims the Council overcharged him by about £800.
  6. In January 2020, Mr T received a final demand for £213.60 payable immediately. This told him he was in arrears on his account for Council Tax for the period April 2019 to March 2020.
  7. A few days later, it sent him a revised Council Tax Bill because of a change in his entitlement to CTR. This reduced what he had to pay to £128.54, about £85 less than it had previously demanded. The accompanying notice explained the reason for the change was it had underpaid him CTR from November 2019 to April 2020 because of an adjustment to his Universal Credit award. It set out his right to challenge this decision and his right to appeal it to the valuation tribunal. Mr T believes both figures were wrong.
  8. When Mr T complained to the Council, it said adjustments to his CTR are outside of its control because it concerns national policy and guidance set out in The Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992. It went on to explain as council tax is billed annually, adjustment to the CTR award will change any balance due for the remainder of the year. Mr T complains the Council quoted the wrong Act and believes his criticisms were about issues within its control.
  9. The Council explained Mr T’s Universal Credit claim is reassessed monthly by the DWP. This means his CTR is also reassessed monthly although workloads may mean a delay in doing so. It accepts this means it is difficult for these customers to budget with any certainty.
  10. The Council confirmed from August 2018, his CTR claim ended. This was because he no longer qualified due to his income. The Council told him if he disputed its decision, he could appeal to the valuation tribunal. Despite asking for information from Mr T that might allow it to revise this decision, he failed to send it. The Council told him he would now need to send a fresh application if he wanted to claim CTR. It warned it cannot backdate awards of CTR but, offered to use its discretionary hardship payment scheme to give him the same CTR award it would have done. A few days later, Mr T accepted this offer. The Council gave him a discretionary award for 1 month in 2018 and 5 months in 2018/19.
  11. The Council also confirmed he later received CTR for 5 months in 2019 and 1 month in 2020. It explained with CTR and the discretionary hardship payment, Mr T received assistance from September 2018 to March 2020 except for 1 month in 2018 and 2 months over 2019/20 which was due to his income levels.

Analysis

  1. When a claimant’s circumstances change, their CTR may reduce. If reduced, it could create an increased council tax bill. An adjustment creates a CTR reversal. Appeals about awards of CTR are made to the valuation tribunal for England.
  2. I make the following findings on this complaint:
      1. The evidence I have seen for the period I can investigate from August 2018, when his claim for CTR ended, shows the Council reassessed his CTR claim within a month of receiving Universal Credit information from the DWP. I found no fault on this complaint.
      2. The Council explained it made monthly adjustments to his CTR because it received monthly information received about his Universal Credit claim. It looked at 4 ways of calculating his CTR entitlement and found the most beneficial to him was reassessing it each month as this resulted in the highest award. I am not satisfied its practice of making monthly adjustments to his CTR amounts to fault.
      3. On 6 January 2020, the Council sent Mr T a Council Tax Reminder Notice for April 2019 to March 2020. This was for a balance of £213.60 he had to pay.
      4. Three days later, the Council sent him a revised Council Tax Bill because of a change in his entitlement to CTR. This reduced what he had to pay to £128.54, about £85 less than it had demanded. The accompanying notice explained the reason for the change was he had been underpaid CTR from November 2019 to April 2020 because of an adjustment to his Universal Credit award. It set out his right to challenge this decision and his right to appeal it to the valuation tribunal. This means this decision is not within our jurisdiction.
      5. I have seen no evidence to support Mr T’s claim that the Council had overcharged him Council Tax from August 2018.
      6. I considered Mr T’s complaint about the Council referring to The Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992. This remains the primary legislation for Council Tax. As noted, from 1 April 2013, council tax benefit was abolished. Each local authority is under a duty to have a local council tax support scheme, known as CTR. (Section 13A of the Local Government Finance Act 2012) The 2012 Act introduced local CTR schemes and regulations set out the prescribed requirements to be included in all local schemes (The Council Tax Reduction Schemes (Prescribed Requirements) (England) Regulations 2012). The 2012 Act added a new section 13A to the Local Government and Finance Act 1992 so a person’s liability to pay Council Tax will be reduced according to the local CTR scheme.
      7. On balance, while I consider the Council could have given more accurate information about the statutory background, I am not satisfied it amounts to fault. This is partly because it also advised Mr T about its own scheme which it reviews. It invited him to meet officers to discuss how it could amend the CTR scheme to help claimants in similar situations but, he declined to do so.

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Final decision

  1. The Ombudsman found no fault on Mr T’s complaint against the Council.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not investigated the following:

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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