The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained about the Councils management of his Council Tax account and its complaint handling causing him anxiety, frustration, time and trouble. We found the Council was at fault for how it managed Mr X’s Council Tax account and how it handled his complaint. We recommended the Council provide Mr X with an apology, pay him £200 and act to prevent recurrence.
- failed to inform him it would cancel his Council Tax support if he did not provide requested information.
- ignored his correspondence; and
- failed to reinstate his Council Tax support as agreed.
- He also complained about the Council’s complaint handling.
- Mr X says this caused him anxiety, frustration and cost him time and trouble in his attempts to resolve the issue.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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 spoke to Mr X and I reviewed documents provided by Mr X and the Council.
- Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered their comments before making a final decision.
What I found
Council complaints policy
- The Council publishes its complaints policy on its website.
- This says there is no timescale for dealing with complaints as it tries to resolve them immediately or as quickly as possible.
- Complaints are assigned to a manager who will contact the complainant immediately to try and resolve the complaint.
- It also says if a complaint needs investigating, it will discuss the likely timescale with the complainant, but it will be no longer than three weeks before it sends written confirmation of the outcome.
Principles of good administrative practice
- In 2018 the Ombudsman published its updated ‘Principles of good administrative practice’ guidance for local authorities. Some of the core principles are an expectation local authorities will act on:
- ‘being service user focused’, by informing service users what they can expect and what the organisation expects of them.
- ‘getting it right’, by providing effective services, using appropriately trained and competent staff.
- ‘putting things right’, by putting mistakes right quickly and effectively.
- Mr X received an email from the Council on 8 September 2020 asking for information about his relationship to another person living at the same property. The Council gave no date for a response and did not let Mr X know there would be consequences if he did not supply the information.
- Mr X received a letter from the Council on 12 October 2020. It explained it had cancelled his Council Tax support as he had not provided the information asked for in the email of 8 September 2020.
- Council Tax support is a reduction in Council Tax, to help people who are on a low income or claiming certain benefits to pay their Council Tax bill. Each local council is responsible for operating their own Council Tax support scheme.
- Mr X telephoned the Council on 20 October 2020 to discuss the letter. The Council advised him his Council Tax support would be reinstated. Mr X provided information about the other person at the property, by email, the same day.
- The Council did not reinstate Mr X’s Council Tax support which created an outstanding balance on his Council Tax account. The Council sent Mr X a reminder for the outstanding balance on 25 January 2021 and on 10 March 2021 it sent a demand.
- Mr X sent a letter to the Council on 17 March 2021, which was signed for on 19 March 2021, querying the demand, to which he received no response.
- The Council sent Mr X a final reminder for the outstanding Council Tax on 6 May 2021.
- Mr X sent a complaint to the Council on 11 May 2021. The complaint was forwarded by the Council, the same day, to the relevant departments, however Mr X did not receive an acknowledgement of his complaint.
- The Council sent an email to Mr X on 14 June 2021, apologising for the delay in responding to his complaint. It advised a hold had been placed on his Council Tax account and it would respond to his complaint shortly.
- Mr X did not hear from the Council regarding his complaint and on 17 August 2021 he received a summons for non-payment of Council Tax. This left Mr X worried and anxious about action the Council could take to recover the money it said he owed.
- Mr X contacted the Ombudsman on 24 August 2021 and enquiries were made with the Council. The Council sent a complaint response to Mr X on 23 September 2021. It apologised and explained his response on 20 October 2020 had been overlooked. It confirmed it removed all Council Tax charges from his account which is now in credit.
- The Council also advised Mr X if he was dissatisfied with its response, he had the right to have the decision reviewed.
- The Ombudsman asked the Council if it had finished with Mr X’s complaint as it had offered a review. It did not indicate it wanted to consider it further.
Management of Council Tax account
- The Council accepts it failed to inform Mr X it would cancel his Council Tax account if he did not provide the information it asked for. It also accepts it overlooked the information Mr X supplied on 20 October 2020. This is fault. It has apologised and adjusted Mr X’s Council Tax account accordingly.
- Mr X contacted the Council three times, via the telephone, email and letter, before sending his complaint; however the Council either overlooked or did not action these communications. This is fault. Mr X suffered significant personal injustice, including frustration and anxiety. This warrants more than an apology from the Council.
- The Council failed to contact Mr X as soon as it received his complaint and failed to provide a complaint response within three weeks. This is fault as it failed to follow its own complaint policy when dealing with Mr X’s complaint. The Council took 34 days to acknowledge Mr X’s complaint and four months to provide a substantive response, only after enquiries from the Ombudsman. This fault caused Mr X frustration, anxiety and time and trouble in pursuing his complaint.
- To remedy the injustice set out above, I recommend the Council carries out the following actions:
- Within one month:
- Issue a further apology to Mr X, including the handling of his complaint.
- Pay him £200 which is a symbolic payment to reflect the frustration and anxiety caused by the length of time taken to resolve his Council Tax account, and the Council’s failure to deal with his complaint in line with its complaint policy.
- Within three months:
- Remind relevant staff that requests for information should provide a clear timescale for a response and state the consequence if the information is not provided in time.
- Identify why the Council overlooked information provided by Mr X and take action to prevent reoccurrence.
- Remind relevant staff of the importance to acknowledge and respond to complaints as set out in the Council’s complaints policy.
- The Council has accepted my recommendations.
- I have found fault by the Council. This fault caused Mr X injustice and the Council has agreed to my recommendations therefore I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman