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London Borough of Lambeth (21 010 932)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax support

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 25 Apr 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms X complains about the way the Council dealt with her claims for Council Tax Support causing her distress and financial difficulties. We found the Council was at fault in the way it responded to Ms X’s complaints about the matter as it did not issue a final complaint response to her. But this fault has not caused Ms X an injustice. We found no evidence of fault in the Council’s overall management of her claims. We will not investigate whether Ms X is eligible for Council Tax Support as it would be reasonable for Ms X to appeal to the Council and then to the Valuation Tribunal. So, we have completed our investigation.

The complaint

  1. I have called the complainant Ms X. She complains about the way the Council dealt with her claims for Council Tax Support (CTS). Ms X says the Council has:
    • Mismanaged her claim since October 2019 when it closed the claim without telling her until she became aware of it in February 2020. Ms X says she was in contact with and sending information to the CTS section during that time, but officers did not tell her the Council closed the claim.
    • Reopened her claim in March 2020 without telling her and then told her in April 2020 she did not qualify for CTS.
    • Removed her single person discount for Council Tax due to her son becoming a student and so classed as a non-dependent.
    • Mistakenly considered she earned wages in January 2020 when she did not earn anything.
    • Refused to backdate her CTS claim to January 2020.
    • Accepted her complaint about the matter in May 2021 but has not sent a final response even though the issue has not been resolved to Ms X’s satisfaction.
  2. Ms X says the Council’s mistakes have caused her stress and she suffered financial difficulties and distress. Ms X wants the Council to provide answers to her concerns and correct its mistakes.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated Ms X’s complaint about the Council’s overall management of her claims and responses to her complaints. I have not investigated Ms X’s entitlement to CTS, the amounts awarded and whether the Council should backdate her claims. I have also not investigated Ms X’s concerns about the loss of her single person discount for Council Tax and her son’s status as non-dependent. I have explained my reasons for not investigating these issues within this statement.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Ombudsman investigates complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’, which we call ‘fault’. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint, which we call ‘injustice’. We provide a free service but must use public money carefully. We do not start or may decide not to continue with an investigation if we decide:
  • any fault has not caused injustice to the person who complained, or
  • any injustice is not significant enough to justify our involvement, or
  • there is another body better placed to consider this complaint,
  • it would be reasonable for the person to ask for a council review or appeal.

(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6))

  1. The Local Government Act 1974 sets out our powers but also imposes restrictions on what we can investigate.
  2. 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 Valuation Tribunal deals with appeals against decisions on council tax liability and council tax support or reduction.
  3. 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. I have read the papers submitted by Ms X and spoken to her about the complaint. I considered the Council’s comments on the complaint and the supporting documents it provided.
  2. Ms X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

Council Tax Support

  1. CTS is a benefit which helps some people pay their council tax. Each council sets its own scheme and rules. This means someone may qualify for help if they live in one council area but would not qualify if they live in a different council area.
  2. The law requires people to pay council tax as billed by a council even if they have applied for a discount or reduction.
  3. Councils can require applicants for council tax support to supply financial information, such as proof of earnings or savings, before they can assess an application.

Events leading to the complaint

  1. This section sets out the key events in this case and is not intended to be a detailed chronology. On each occasion the Council assessed and decided Ms X’s claims for CTS it has explained to Ms X how it calculated the award. It also explained her right to request a review if unhappy with the decision and her right of appeal to the Valuation Tribunal.

Events in 2018

  1. Ms X applied for CTS in 2018. The Council awarded Ms X some CTS but told her ‘You do not qualify’ for certain dates and from October 2018.

Events in 2019

  1. Ms X applied again in July 2019. The Council told Ms X she did not qualify because her income was too high. Ms X applied for CTS in August 2019 after being made redundant from her job and applied for Universal Credit (UC) managed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The Council awarded Ms X CTS from the end of August 2019 onwards.
  2. The Council asked Ms X about her son’s circumstances. Ms X advised he was starting university in September 2019. In October 2019 the Council told Ms X it changed her award due to changes in UC, her son’s non-dependent status now he was a student and information from the DWP.
  3. Ms X complained about the Council’s decision as she considered it used wrong information and asked for a review its decision. The Council looked at Ms X’s application again and revised its award from August 2019 onwards. The Council replied to her complaint explaining it had changed the decision.
  4. In November 2019 the DWP emailed the Council in support of Ms X’s request for a reconsideration and said it had mistakenly overpaid Ms X UC. Ms X repaid the overpayment, so she received a smaller amount of UC for August to October 2019. The DWP asked the Council to rectify the CTS payments.
  5. The Council changed Ms X’s award due to information from the DWP and sent Ms X a decision letter. It told Ms X if there were errors in the UC award it could not adjust the information without receiving an update from the DWP through the shared data system. The Council told Ms X to speak to UC to send an update. The Council received information from the DWP in November 2019 and revised its decision on 10 December 2019. The Council told Ms X she no longer qualified for CTS from 28 October 2019.
  6. In December 2019 Ms X contacted the Council about a change of circumstances as she had been unable to work for two weeks due to ill health.

Events in 2020

  1. In January 2020 Ms X told the Council she had an issue as the DWP recorded she earned £640 between 23 December 2019 and 22 January 2020. Ms X said she did not earn anything and had payslips to prove it. Ms X asked the DWP to resolve the error in her UC.
  2. Ms X’s MP complained to the Council on her behalf in February 2020 about her difficulties in paying her Council Tax. The Council told the MP it awarded Ms X maximum CTS from August to October 2019. The DWP told the Council Ms X received a redundancy payment, so she was no longer entitled to CTS from 28 October 2019. The Council explained it was required to use information provided by the DWP when calculating CTS claims. So, Ms X needed to raise concerns about discrepancies with her income with the DWP. The Council said as Ms X advised she could not afford to pay £182 a month to clear her arrears of Council Tax it agreed to allow her to pay £50 a month.
  3. In February 2020 Ms X asked the Council to review its December 2019 decision as she disagreed with the information sent to her MP. Ms X said the Council failed to tell her it stopped her CTS claim and she needed to reapply for support. Ms X considered the Council’s wording ‘ you do not qualify ‘ was misleading. And did not say she was not entitled to support with the claim now closed. Ms X asked why the Council closed her claim even though she was on a 0-hours contract and did not tell her despite her contact with the Council. Ms X said the Council did not consult her over the decision to pay £50 a month towards her Council Tax.
  4. The Council received information from the DWP in February 2020 about Mrs X’s change in circumstances. The Council reviewed its decision and changed Ms X’s award from January to March 2020. Ms X did not qualify for CTS for a week in January 2020 but qualified until April 2020. The Council then superseded the award from 27 January to April 2020 by applying a non-dependent deduction. Ms X failed to qualify for CTs as a result.

Ms X’s complaint to the Council in May 2020

  1. Ms X complained to the Council in May 2020 about its decision. In summary Ms X complained:
    • Why the Council stopped her CTS award from 27 January 2020. The Council explained it awarded her CTS from 27 January 2020 but failed to include the non -dependent deduction for her son. The Council accepted it made an error and revised her claim in April 2020 to correct it. The non-dependent deduction meant she was not entitled to receive CTS.
    • The information from the DWP to cause the Council to cancel the claim as it knew her income fluctuated being on a 0-hours contract. The Council confirmed the DWP sent all the correct income details to enable the Council to assess her claim. But she did not qualify due to the non–dependent deduction.
    • Why the Council only told her in February 2020 it had cancelled her claim in October 2019. The Council explained it told Ms X on 10 December 2019 it had stopped her CTS from October 2019.
    • The Council did not help her over several months and only provided a clear explanation to her MP. The Council said it had tried to support Ms X in her claim for CTS. It accepted it could have made the reason for ending her CTS clearer.
    • She did not agree to the £50 a month arrangement to clear her Council Tax arrears. The Council noted Ms X contacted it in February 2020 to ask the Council to reduce the £182 a month it sought to clear her Council Tax arrears. It was agreed Ms X would pay £50 a month.
  2. The Council agreed to look to improve its communications about non-dependent deductions and when they apply. And to look at an alternative arrangement for Ms X to pay less than £50 a month.
  3. Ms X sent the Council a breakdown of her UC awards and 0-earnings in January 2020. A councillor also contacted the Council on Ms X’s behalf about it closing her claim in October 2019 without her knowledge. Ms X said the Council’s replies had not addressed her concerns.
  4. The Council wrote to Ms X in May 2020 inviting her to make a claim for CTS because her decreasing earnings may entitle her to CTS support from March 2020 onwards. The Council asked Ms X to complete a new application. The Council wrote to Ms X again in September 2020 advising her to make a new claim.

New CTS claim October 2020

  1. Ms X made a new CTS claim on 21 October 2020. Ms X asked the Council to backdate the claim to 1 January 2020. The Council refused the backdating request saying Ms X had not shown continuous good reason. The Council confirmed it issued Ms X with letters in April 2020 saying her claim was ending and she did not qualify from 27 January 2020. The Council told Ms X she could appeal if she disagreed with the decision.
  2. The Council told Ms X she qualified for CTS from 22 October 2020. Ms X asked the Council to review its decision refusing to backdate to 1 January 2020.

Complaint to Council November 2020

  1. Ms X also complained to the Council. Ms X considered it should review her CTS claim from October 2019 and the Council failed to respond to her queries.
  2. The Council responded to Ms X’s complaint in November 2020. An officer explained the DWP provided the income the Council had on file for Ms X. The officer explained how the Council calculated her CTS in October 2019 and Ms X’s income was too high to receive CTS. The officer provided a breakdown of income used to assess her claim. The officer said once there had been no entitlement the Council needed a new application form if a customer wanted to make a new claim.
  3. The officer said the DWP’s information meant she did not qualify for CTS from 28 October 2019. If Ms X considered the Council used the wrong income, then she needed to provide the Council with a full breakdown of her UC awards and earnings from 28 October 2019 so far. The officer said the Council advised Ms X in May 2020 to make a claim for CTS from 23 March 2020 due to a decrease in her income. But the Council did not receive a completed form until 21 October 2020.
  4. The Council paid Ms X CTS from 26 October 2020 using the claim form sent on 21 October 2020. The officer confirmed the Council could not assess her claim from March 2020 as she did not send the claim within a month of the letter in May 2020. The Council refused the request for backdating. The officer said the Council may be able to revise the decision and award backdating for a maximum of 13 weeks. The officer asked Ms X to provide a full breakdown of her UC credit and any income for July, August, and September 2020 by December 2020 if she wished the Council to consider this.
  5. Ms X responded to the officer’s letter and referred to her 0-earnings in January 2020 and the DWP’s view she earned £640. Ms X said the DWP misinformed the Council, and the Council did not tell her it closed her claim in October 2019. Ms X said she had not received the Council’s letter of May 2020 advising her to apply for CTS from March 2020. Ms X said she applied following the Council’s letter in September 2020. Ms X provided information of the UC awards and income and asked the Council to consider her claim backdated to October 2019.

Events in 2021

  1. In January 2021 the Council told Ms X it revised her award to consider non- dependent deductions. The Council asked Ms X to provide evidence of her income from April 2020 to October 2020 to assess her claim from April 2020. The Council said it was reassessing her claim on information received from the DWP. The DWP paid UC in arrears so it would apply the UC award for the assessment period as stated by the DWP. The Council and Ms X liaised over the information needed.
  2. In March 2021 the Council issued a decision on Ms X’s entitlement to CTS from 1 April 2021. It then told Ms X on 30 March 2021 it had awarded her CTS from 28 October 2019 to 26 October 2020. The Council’s letter explained how it calculated each period, advised Ms X of her right to request a review and appeal to the Valuation Tribunal if she did not agree. The Council also awarded Ms X a CTS Discretionary payment from 1 April 2021.
  3. In June 2021 the Council suspended Ms X’s award and asked for evidence of her UC award from April and May 2021. Ms X sent the information sought. The Council obtained information from HMRC about Ms X’s earnings from her work . The Council told Ms X it superseded her award to take account of a change in her circumstances. As a result, she had been overpaid CTS by £928.88 for April to May 2021.
  4. The Council received further information from the DWP in September 2021 about a change in Ms X’s circumstances. The Council superseded Ms X’s award to take account of the information which meant Ms X did not qualify for CTS from 26 July 2021. Ms X sent a review request on 11 September 2021 and included evidence of her earnings. Ms X also asked to appeal the Council’s decision to stop her discretionary CTS award.
  5. The Council told Ms X in November 2021 of changes to her CTS award because of information from the DWP. It advised Ms X she had been underpaid CTS. The Council told Ms X in December 2021 it had superseded her award due to information from the DWP. The DWP sent further information in January 2022. The Council advised Ms X in January 2022 she had been overpaid CTS so it would send her a revised Council Tax bill.

The Council comments on the complaint

  1. The Council confirmed a legal duty to use information provided by the DWP about Ms X’s UC award which includes her earnings. The Council told Ms X to report any anomalies of her earnings to the DWP and provide a revised decision from it before the Council can change a decision in her favour.
  2. The Council says it did not issue Ms X with a final complaint response after her complaint in May 2021 despite Ms X chasing for a response in July and October 2021. The reason for failing to do so was because the investigating officer took on extra duties during this time. The Council apologised to Ms X for any upset and inconvenience it may have caused.
  3. The Council accepts delays in responding to Ms X’s concerns. But says the issue was about the information received from the DWP which contradicted the information Ms X provided. This in turn affected the outcome of the assessment which should have been handled by way of an appeal rather than a complaint.

My assessment

  1. The documents provided show no evidence of fault by the Council in the overall management of Ms X’s CTS claim. This is because the Council relies on information from the DWP about Ms X’s UC award and her earnings, so Ms X needs to report any issues about her earnings to the DWP. The documents also show the Council dealt with Ms X’s claims when submitted and received information from the DWP. On each occasion the Council issued a decision it advised Ms X of her appeal rights if she disagreed.
  2. Ms X says the Council mismanaged her CTS claim from October 2019 when it closed her claim without telling her. The documents show the Council told Ms X in December 2019 she no longer qualified for CTS from October 2019, so her claim ended. It is unfortunate if Ms X did not realise the this was the case in December 2019, but I cannot say it was due to any fault by the Council. This is because the Council gave Ms X the same information about not qualifying for CTS in 2018 and 2019. The evidence provided shows Ms X was aware from the phrase ‘you do not qualify’ her claims had stopped, and she submitted new claims when she considered she needed support again.
  3. The Council consistently told Ms X her rights to request a revision of decisions it makes about her CTS claims and then an appeal to the Valuation Tribunal if she remained unhappy with the outcome. The evidence shows the Council told Ms X of her appeal rights in December 2019 when it made the decision, she did not qualify from October 2019.
  4. Ms X could have appealed to the Valuation Tribunal if she thought the Council had not calculated her CTS claim correctly. As paragraph six 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. I consider it reasonable to expect Ms X to have appealed because the tribunal is the appropriate body to decide if a council has assessed a CTS claim in accordance with its CTS policy. So, because of this I will not investigate this part of Ms X’s complaint.
  5. Ms X raised concerns about issues in January 2020 and wages she earned. Ms X asked for a revision of the decision which the Council carried out. Again, Ms X could have pursued the matter to the Valuation Tribunal as this was the correct route to use to challenge any decision on eligibility and the information used to calculate it. I consider it reasonable to expect Ms X to use her appeal rights so I will not investigate this part of Ms X’s complaint. This is because the Tribunal is the appropriate body to decide if a council has assessed a claim according to its CTS policy.
  6. The Council reviewed Ms X’s claim twice in March 2020 due to information from the DWP which is why Ms X was notified of further decisions. The outcome was that Ms X did not qualify for CTS. I will not investigate this part of the complaint because Ms X could have appealed to the Valuation Tribunal if she did not think the Council had awarded enough CTS. It is reasonable to expect Ms X to have appealed because the Tribunal is the appropriate body to consider disputes about CTS awards.
  7. Instead, Ms X complained to the Council in May 2020 as she disagreed with the Council’s response to her MP’s contact. The Council responded to Ms X’s concerns. But accepts it did not send her a final complaint response when she remained unhappy. It is fault by the Council not to respond to Ms X’s complaint. The Council has apologised which I consider suitable action for it to take to remedy any injustice caused to Ms X. This is because I consider the injustice caused to Ms X was limited to frustration in not receiving a further response to her concerns. The Council had already provided a detailed response to her complaint. It had advised her of the right to request a revision of the Council’s decision and to appeal if she did not agree with the outcome. Ms X had asked for a revision of decisions previously so I would have expected her to use that route as it was the correct way to challenge any decision on eligibility.
  8. Ms X asked the Council in October 2020 to backdate her CTS to October 2019 and January 2020. The Council initially refused the backdating request. But reviewed the decision in March 2020 following a revision request from Ms X and awarded her CTS back to October 2019. Any dispute about the backdating of CTS can be appealed to a Valuation Tribunal. The Tribunal is an expert body, and their decisions are binding on the Council. Ms X could have appealed the Tribunal if the Council had not reversed its decision which would have been the appropriate route to take.
  9. It is unfortunate if Ms X did not receive the Council’s letter in May 2020 inviting her to apply for CTS, but I cannot say this was through any fault by the Council. This is because the Council sent the letter to Ms X at the correct address.
  10. The Council reviewed its decision on Ms X’s CTS claim in June 2021 and considered she had been overpaid CTS. The Council told Ms X and advised of her appeal rights. Ms X requested a review In September 2021 which the Council needs to progress if it has not done so already. This is so Ms X can appeal to the Valuation Tribunal if she wishes to challenge the decision.
  11. Ms X complained about the Council’s decision to remove her single person discount and apply a non-dependent reduction for her son. Ms X can appeal to the Valuation Tribunal about these issues if she does not agree with the Council’s decisions. I consider it is reasonable for her to because the Tribunal is the appropriate body to consider disputes about Council Tax. So, I will not investigate this part of Ms X’s complaint.

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Final decision

  1. I am completing my investigation. I have found fault by the Council as it failed to issue a final complaint response to Ms X . But the fault has not caused Ms X an injustice. The Council was not at fault in its overall management of Ms X’s CTS claims. I will not investigate whether Ms X is eligible for CTS and the amounts received. This is because it is reasonable to expect Ms X to appeal to the Council and then to the Valuation Tribunal.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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