The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs B complained about the way in which the Council dealt with changes to her son’s benefit entitlement which created overpayments. We cannot find fault with the Council’s actions.
- Mrs B complains that Stroud District Council (the Council), in respect of the overpayments of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support for her son, Mr C, has failed to explain:
- why the overpayments arose: Mrs B says the Council was aware of Mr C’s income;
- that Mr C had a right of appeal against both decisions;
- why it proposed to recover the council tax support directly out of Mr C’s bank account in one lump sum, potentially causing him financial hardship; and
- why it started recovering the overpayment of housing benefit from the ongoing payments immediately.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone can appeal to a tribunal. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to appeal. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(a), as amended)
- The Social Entitlement Chamber (also known as the Social Security Appeal Tribunal) is a tribunal that considers housing benefit appeals. (The Social Entitlement Chamber of the First Tier Tribunal)
- 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- 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. Mrs B and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
- Mrs B’s son, Mr C was in receipt of housing benefit and council tax support. He had been claiming since 2015. The application form which he signed said he agreed to let the Council know immediately of any change in his circumstances. He has some health conditions which cause him anxiety and Mrs B helps him with financial issues. In September 2019 he started working for a different Council with an increase in earnings compared to his previous job. Mr C last provided a payslip to the Council in January 2019.
- The Council was notified by its verification system on 27 October 2020 that Mr C’s income had increased in November 2019, April 2020, September 2020 and October 2020.
- The Council recalculated his entitlement to housing benefit and council tax support. It sent notification letters to him on 28 October 2020 showing a reduced entitlement to both benefits which had created two overpayments. All the notifications explained he had a right of appeal against the decisions, gave details of how and when it would recover the overpayments and advice to contact the Council if the recovery arrangements would cause him financial difficulty.
- Mrs B contacted the Council the same day to complain that the Council was aware of Mr C’s income and so it was responsible for the error. She said she did not receive a response and so she contacted her local councillor in November 2020. She said her son was now in rent arrears and she had cancelled the council tax direct debit to protect him from further debt. She offered to pay £25 in the meantime. She sent another email to her councillor at the end of November 2020 as she had not received a response.
- On 4 December 2020 a senior manager responded by email explaining that the overpayments had arisen because Mr C’s entitlement had reduced since his earnings increased and he had not informed the Council at the time they increased.
- Mrs B remained dissatisfied and escalated her complaint to stage two of the Council’s complaints procedure. The Council responded in February 2021. It apologised for the delay in replying. It explained again why and how the debts had arisen and confirmed the outstanding balances. It offered to add the council tax overpayment to the following year’s bill so it could be paid over 12 months. It also acknowledged there was some learning for the Council in terms of improving communication and timescales.
- Mrs B then complained to us
- I cannot identify any fault in the way the Council has dealt with Mr C’s benefit claims. There is no evidence Mr C or Mrs B notified the Council of the increase in his income and the Council was only made aware in October 2020 via its verification system. It revised his entitlement and sent notifications the following day giving full appeal rights.
- If Mrs B disagreed with the decisions, she could have appealed against them. She did not appeal but instead complained to the Council. The Council took just over four weeks to reply and provided an explanation of what had happened. I do not consider this was an excessive delay and Mrs C was aware of the right of appeal if she wished to challenge the decision formally.
- The Council has made a further offer to spread the council tax debt over this year’s instalments. I cannot find fault with this approach.
- I have completed my investigation into this complaint as I am unable to find fault causing injustice in the actions of the Council towards Mrs B or Mr C.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman