Durham County Council (18 001 943)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 18 Mar 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: I found no fault in the way the Council reached the decision to put Mr X on its register of potentially violent persons and considered his appeal. I did not investigate other parts of Mr X’s complaint about Council Tax matters.

The complaint

  1. There are two parts to Mr X’s complaint about the Council:
      1. concerns about his Council Tax liability, his entitlement to Council Tax Reduction and backdating of the claim and action taken to recover disputed Council Tax arrears;
      2. the decision to place him on the Potentially Violent Person Register and to dismiss his appeal.

Back to top

What I have investigated

  1. I investigated complaint b). I did not investigate complaint a) for the reasons given in paragraph 35.

Back to top

The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), 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)

Back to top

How I considered this complaint

  1. I have spoken to Mr X and considered all the information he sent us. I considered the Council’s comments and records and its policy guidance on the Potentially Violent Persons Register.
  2. I have considered the comments Mr X and the Council made in response to my draft decision.

Back to top

What I found

  1. As an employer, the Council has a legal duty to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of employees at work. It must assess, and reduce the risks, faced by employees from violence and aggression at work.
  2. The Council has adopted a policy on managing violence and aggression. It includes the following definition of violence and aggression:

“Any incident in which an employee is abused, threatened or assaulted by a member of the public (including clients, pupils etc) in circumstances arising out of the course of his or her employment.”

  1. Council employees must report any incident of violence, aggression or abuse from a member of the public using an online incident reporting form. They must also report any risks to employees from other organisations. After the form has been checked and approved by a line manager, it is reviewed the Council’s Health & Safety team. That team monitors all reported incidents and decides whether to place the person’s name on a secure electronic Potentially Violent Persons Register (PVPR). It then puts a warning marker in the records.
  2. In most cases, the Council writes to notify the person of the decision to put them on the PVPR. The letter includes the date, time and nature of the incident reported. It explains the decision will be reviewed in 12 months’ time. If there are no further reported incidents, and no evidence of any continuing risk, the person’s name is then removed from the Register. The letter also explains the person may appeal against the decision within 14 days.
  3. The appeals panel is drawn from officers in the Health & Safety Legal & Democratic Services, Equality & Diversity and Information Management teams. The panel considers the person’s written grounds for appeal and statements from the employee who completed the incident report. The panel’s role is to decide if the information was recorded in a fair, accurate and unbiased way.
  4. If the Panel upholds the appeal, the person’s name is removed from the PVPR within five working days. If it does not uphold the appeal, it must write to the person within five working days to explain its decision and signpost them to the Council’s complaints procedure.

What happened

  1. The Council has a contract with a firm of civil enforcement agents (formerly known as bailiffs) to recover Council Tax debts.
  2. Mr X has a long-running dispute with the Council about the amount of Council Tax he owes and action it has taken to recover the debt.
  3. In early May 2018 a civil enforcement agent visited Mr X’s home. He knocked on the door but there was no answer so he left a letter. In his notes, he said he saw a sword and a hammer behind the door and recorded this as a cause for concern.
  4. On the following morning, two civil enforcement agents went to Mr X’s home. Mr X says he and his partner went outside to speak to them. The agents said they were collecting a Council Tax debt. Mr X told them the car parked on his drive was subject to a hire purchase agreement. Mr X and his partner went back inside. He says the agents walked around the property and peered through the windows. Mr X says the agents would have seen an ornamental sword on a stand at the window and the hammer inside the front porch.
  5. While the enforcement agents were outside, Mr X telephoned the Council. Officer A, who works in the Council Tax debt collections team, spoke to him. Mr X referred to his ongoing dispute about the Council Tax debt and recovery action. After further discussion, Officer A says Mr X became agitated, refused to pay until the Valuation Tribunal had decided an appeal and shouted at Officer A. According to Officer A’s notes, Mr X then stated that he had two dogs and would set them on the enforcement agents if they came to his door. Officer A ended the call at that point.
  6. Officer A spoke to his line manager who instructed him to contact the enforcement agents who were outside Mr X’s property to inform them of the threat. Officer A completed an incident report form the following day.
  7. Officer A’s telephone conversation with Mr X was not recorded. The Council did not introduce routine call recording until December 2018.
  8. On 16 May the Council wrote to inform Mr X of its decision to put him on the PVPR. The letter gave the date and time of the incident and described it as:

“Threatened with an animal; Verbal Aggression or Threat (over phone)”

  1. The letter explained the Register is a secure electronic database with a marker to alert staff to the potential risk. It said it would review the decision in May 2019. It explained Mr X could appeal if he disagreed with the decision.
  2. Two days later, Mr X requested an appeal. He said the Council had incorrectly recorded the time of the alleged incident. He also gave his account of what happened on 9 May. He said the civil enforcement agents arrived at his home in the morning. He said they had threatened to enter his home. He then went inside and locked all the doors and windows. He said the enforcement agents banged on his doors and windows and this set his dogs barking. He called the police who advised him to contact the Council. He then telephoned the Council and spoke to Officer A.
  3. Mr X says Officer A refused to call off the enforcement agents. He did tell Officer A he had dogs in the house. Mr X says he had mentioned the dogs because he wanted to make it clear that if the enforcement agents forced entry he could not guarantee their safety. He was also concerned that his dogs could run out on to the main road. Mr X says he was extremely upset during this call but he was not aggressive. He denies making any threats. He says he merely stated as fact that his dogs may cause an accident or injury if they escaped from his home.
  4. Before the Appeals Panel met, an officer in the Health & Safety team contacted Officer A to ask if there were any other witnesses to the incident. Officer A confirmed his telephone conversation with Mr X was not recorded. He repeated his statement that Mr X had said he would set his dogs on the enforcement agents if they approached the door. Officer A had informed his manager and the enforcement agents but the incident was not reported to the police.
  5. The Appeals Panel considered Mr X’s appeal on 25 May. It considered the incident report form, Officer A’s case notes and statement and Mr X’s email.

On 14 June it wrote to Mr X to say it had not upheld his appeal. The panel found no evidence that the decision to place him on the PVPR was wrong. It confirmed he would remain on the PVPR until 9 May 2019 when there would be a review. If there were no further incidents causing concern, his name would then be removed. It said the Appeal Panel’s decision was final but he could complain to the Ombudsman.

  1. Mr X claims the enforcement agents told him they could force entry to the house. At that point Mr X says he responded by explaining if they tried to force entry his dogs would get very agitated and it would be dangerous if they escaped on to the main road outside. He denies making a threat to set his dogs on them. Mr X is concerned that his inclusion on the PVPR may affect his prospects of getting future employment.
  2. In response to my enquiries, the Council told me the video evidence of the enforcement agents’ visit was only retained for 28 days and it was deleted several months ago.

Analysis

  1. The civil enforcement agents noticed a sword and hammer inside Mr X’s home when they visited in May 2018. Although they flagged this as a cause for concern, this did not trigger the Council’s decision to put Mr X on the PVPR. It was the alleged threat Mr X made in his telephone conversation with Officer A that led the Council to take this action.
  2. Mr X and Officer A have given different accounts of what Mr X said. Officer A says Mr X made a clear threat to set his dogs on the enforcement agents if they approached his home. Mr X categorically denies making this threat. He says he simply stated as fact that his dogs could cause an accident or injury if they escaped when the enforcement agents entered his home. As the call was not recorded, there is no way for me to reconcile the conflicting evidence and establish what was said.
  3. There was an error on the incident report form about the time of the incident. The telephone call and the enforcement agents’ visit to Mr X’s home both happened in the morning and not the afternoon. But that error does not mean the rest of Officer A’s report is unreliable or inaccurate.
  4. I have considered all the available evidence. I am likely to find it was not fault for the Council to err on the side of caution and put Mr X’s name on the PVPR based on Officer A’s evidence. The Council has an overriding duty to protect the health and safety of its employees and contractors. It had to weigh Officer A’s evidence against Mr X’s account and then reach a decision. Mr X disputes Officer A’s account but I cannot say which version is correct when there is no recording of the call.
  5. The Appeals Panel followed the correct procedure when it considered Mr X’s appeal. He was given the opportunity to challenge the decision and present his account of events. The Panel considered Mr X’s evidence, a statement from Officer A and his contemporaneous notes of the call. The Panel wrote to inform Mr X of its decision and the date for the 12 month review.
  6. The Council will review Mr X’s case in early May 2019 to decide whether to remove him from the PVPR.

Back to top

Final decision

  1. I have completed the investigation and found no fault in the way the Council made the decision to put Mr X on the PVPR and considered his appeal.

Back to top

Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I did not investigate complaint a) about various Council Tax matters for several reasons. Mr X did not take these complaints through all the stages in the Council’s complaints procedure first. Secondly, some events happened more than 12 months before Mr X made this complaint to us. So these parts of this complaint are late. Finally, the Council notified Mr X of his right to challenge decisions on his claim for a Council Tax Reduction by using the statutory appeals procedure to a Valuation Tribunal. The Ombudsman will not usually investigate a complaint when the complainant has, or had, a right of appeal to a statutory tribunal but did not use it.

Back to top

Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

Print this page