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London Borough of Bromley (20 005 880)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax support

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 21 May 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms X complained the Council used the wrong date in a benefit appeal; failed to deal with her council tax support appeal request and failed to deal with a request to review her housing benefit claim due to changes in her tax credit entitlement causing her stress and inconvenience. The benefit appeal forwarded to the Tribunal Service was correct and based on the date stated by Ms X. The Council provided Ms X with details of how to make a council tax support appeal and she did not do this. Ms X has not been caused a significant injustice as a result of the Council not dealing with a complaint in a timely manner.

The complaint

  1. Ms X complained the Council:
  • used the wrong date in her appeal as she says she is appealing her housing benefit entitlement from January 2018 and not October 2018;
  • failed to deal with her appeal request regarding council tax support entitlement; and
  • failed to deal with her request made on 29 October 2019 to review her housing benefit claim due to changes in her tax credit entitlement.

 

  1. Ms X says she has experienced immense stress and inconvenience and is unable to organise her finances.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. As part of the investigation, I have:
    • considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant;
    • made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided;
    • discussed the issues with the complainant;
    • sent my draft decision to both the Council and the complainant and taken account of their comments in reaching my final decision.

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What I found

  1. Ms X works and claims housing benefit and council tax support. Ms X’s wages can fluctuate which affects the amount of benefit she is entitled to. While the amount of benefit entitlement can increase, it can also decrease and this can result in a benefit overpayment.
  2. If a council pays too much housing benefit to someone it will usually ask them to repay it. The law says an overpayment is recoverable unless it was caused by an official error and it was not reasonable to expect the person to realise they were receiving too much benefit. If someone disagrees with a decision that they must repay an overpayment they can appeal to the tribunal. The law says people should appeal within one month of the date of the decision they think is wrong.
  3. In April 2013 the council tax benefit scheme was replaced by locally determined council tax reduction schemes (also known as council tax support). Appeals about council tax support are made to the Valuation Tribunal but a claimant must first ask a council to review its decision. A council should send a written response within two months and the claimant then has two months to appeal to the Valuation Tribunal.
  4. The Council made a decision in August 2018 on Ms X’s benefit claim which resulted in a housing benefit overpayment from 15 January 2018 to 23 July 2018 and a council tax support overpayment from 15 January 2019 to 1 April 2019. Ms X requested a review of the decision on 5 September. The Council completed the review and wrote to Ms X on 10 September confirming its original decision and that the overpayments were recoverable from Ms X.
  5. Ms X then appealed the decision dated 10 September and the Council carried out a further review. The Council determined that part of the overpayment should not be recovered from Ms X. The decision found the housing benefit overpayment and the council tax support overpayment from 15 January 2018 to 28 May 2018 should not be recovered. The Council confirmed this decision in writing to Ms X on 15 March 2019. This decision reduced the housing benefit overpayment by £1291.04 and the council tax support overpayment by £239.51. Ms X did not appeal this decision.
  6. After receiving information from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in March 2019, the Council reassessed Ms X’s benefit claim. This reassessment resulted in the Council deciding Ms X was not entitled to Housing Benefit from 1 October 2018 and that there was a recoverable overpayment for the period from 1 October 2018 to 4 February 2019. The Council notified Ms X of this decision on 29 March 2019.
  7. On 15 April 2019, Ms X requested a review of the decision dated 29 March 2019. The Council wrote to Ms X on 12 July advising the decision would not change and was upheld. The Council explained Ms X’s right of appeal to the Tribunal Service. Ms X asked for her appeal to be referred to the Tribunal Service. Her appeal form states that she is appealing the decision dated 12 July regarding her entitlement from May 2018.
  8. The Council carried out a further review of the case and when the decision did not change, forwarded the appeal to the Tribunal Service on 24 December 2019. It is my understanding the appeal has not yet been determined.
  9. Ms X made a complaint to the Council on 29 October 2019. She has provided a copy of the acknowledgement email showing a reference number. Ms X contacted the Council again on 24 December and 9 January. Ms X complained the Council had not responded to her complaints.
  10. In response to our initial enquiries, the Council provided a copy of a letter dated 15 January 2020 responding to Ms X’s complaints. As well as addressing her concerns, the Council makes reference to the 29 October complaint saying it cannot find any record. The Council says that if Ms X can provide details, including the reference number from the acknowledgement email, it will search again for it. Ms X says she never received this letter. When I forwarded a copy for her information she was able to provide a copy of the email acknowledgement of the complaint dated 29 October 2019.

Analysis

  1. Ms X complains the Council used the wrong date in her appeal as she says she is appealing her housing benefit entitlement from January 2018 and not October 2018. On the basis of the information I have seen, I am not persuaded there is fault by the Council on this point.
  2. A benefit claimant has the right of appeal to the Tribunal Service in respect of benefit decisions including overpayments and the decision to recover them. I am satisfied Ms X was aware of her right of appeal. In respect of the 15 March 2019 decision, she chose not to use it. She did however appeal the decision dated 12 July. This was a decision reviewing the earlier decision dated 29 March and the decision did not change. This means that Ms X was effectively appealing the decision dated 29 March which dealt with entitlement from 1 October 2018.
  3. I have seen a copy of the form Ms X completed and the covering email making her appeal. She states she is appealing the decision dated 12 July about entitlement from May 2018. As mentioned above, the decision dated 12 July concerned entitlement from October 2018 not May 2018. The decision dated 15 March 2018 covered entitlement for May 2018 but as stated Ms X did not appeal that decision.
  4. While I appreciate there were several decisions and revisions completed around the same time, Ms X is very clear the date of the decision she is appealing. I am satisfied the Council has forwarded the appeal to the Tribunal Service in respect of the decision stated by Ms X. While it may have been her intention to appeal an earlier decision, I cannot say the Council is at fault in this case as the Council has correctly forwarded the appeal Ms X made.
  5. Ms X says the Council has failed to deal with her appeal request regarding council tax support. The appeal process for council tax support is separate from the process for housing benefit and appeals are considered by different tribunals. When I spoke to Ms X she told me that she assumed it was the same appeal process.
  6. I am satisfied the Council gave Ms X clear information about the two appeal processes. In its letter dated 10 September 2018, in response to Ms X’s letter of 5 September disputing the benefit award, the Council provided information about the two appeal systems. Under the heading Council Tax Support it said that if she felt the council tax support award was incorrect she could appeal to the Valuation Tribunal England (VTE) and explained this had to be done on the VTE’s own appeal form. The Council then provided contact details for the VTE including a hyperlink to the VTE website, telephone numbers, email address and postal address.
  7. I am therefore satisfied the Council correctly explained the rights of appeal regarding council tax support and that it was clear how to make a council tax support appeal separately from a housing benefit appeal. I am not persuaded any confusion Ms X experienced was as a result of fault by the Council.
  8. Ms X also complains the Council failed to deal with her request made on 29 October 2019 to review her claim due to changes in her tax credit entitlement. The information provided satisfies me that Ms X did submit a complaint on 29 October 2019 as she has an email acknowledgement with a reference number. It is not clear to me why the Council could not find this in its system. The email says it will acknowledge the complaint within three days and more formally respond within 20 working days. I consider the failure to do this was fault.
  9. I note Ms X says she did not receive the letter dated 15 January 2020 responding to her complaint. I cannot explain why she did not receive it as the Council says it was sent. I have no evidence to dispute either statement and it is possible that the letter was sent but was not received by Ms X. I have no evidence to show there was fault by the Council.
  10. The Council’s response explains to Ms X why it cannot amend her housing benefit entitlement in 2020 because of changes to her tax credit entitlement in April 2018. The Council says the housing benefit was correctly assessed from April 2018 based on the amount of tax credits Ms X was receiving at that time. It says it cannot now review the housing benefit claim because an overpayment of tax credits relating to an earlier period has been identified.
  11. I therefore take the view that any fault in respect of the Council not responding to Ms X’s complaint dated 29 October 2019 has not caused Ms X a significant enough injustice to warrant any further action by the Ombudsman.

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Final decision

  1. I will now complete my investigation as there is no evidence of fault causing a significant injustice.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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