The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms X complains about the way the Council dealt with her Housing Benefit application and Council Tax account since 2016 as she received Liability Orders for non- payment. The Council has accepted it was at fault and incorrectly issued one Liability Order. It also accepted it was at fault as it did not advise Ms X of her appeal rights on decisions about her benefits. The Council has already apologised and offered a payment in recognition of the distress caused. So, the Ombudsman is completing his investigation.
- The complainant whom I shall refer to as Ms X complains about the way the Council has dealt with her Housing Benefit (HB) application and Council Tax account since 2016. This resulted in her receiving Liability Orders for non-payment. This was due to her receiving child care costs during the summer holidays of 2016 and 2017 which reduced her benefit payments.
- Ms X says she has been caused financial distress and time and trouble in trying to resolve the dispute over her Council Tax bills and the recovery action taken against her. Ms X says despite trying to resolve matters the Council has refused to listen to her.
- Ms X says the Council has now accepted an error, agreed to repay her and offered £75.00 in compensation. Ms X does not consider this enough for the distress caused.
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’. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe:
- it is unlikely we could add to any previous investigation by the Council, or
- it is unlikely further investigation will lead to a different outcome.
(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A (6), 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)
- We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have read the papers submitted by Ms X. I considered the Council’s comments about the complaint and the supporting documents it provided. I have explained my draft decision to Ms X and the Council and considered the comments received.
What I found
- I have exercised discretion to look at Ms X’s complaints about her Council Tax account back to 2015/16 even though the events happened more than 12 months ago. This is because Ms X provided evidence showing she has been pursuing matters with the Council since then.
- Ms X claims Council Tax Support (CTS) from the Council to help towards her Council Tax liability. Under the Council’s CTS scheme Ms X must pay 15% of her Council Tax liability. Ms X also claims HB towards her rent payments and the Council pays this directly to her landlord.
Events in 2016
- Ms X moved to a new property in October 2015. She contacted the Council Tax service in January 2016 querying liability at her old address. Ms X’s landlord confirmed her leaving date as 20 October 2015.
- In March 2016, the Council Tax service issued Ms X with a bill for £149.41 for the new financial year 2016/17. The benefits service also sent her a benefit review form asking for information and evidence of her current income. The Council issued the bill to Ms X at her mother’s address and the benefit review form to her old address.
- In April 2016, the Council Tax service told Ms X it had closed her account for her old address from 20 October 2015 and she owed an outstanding balance of £34.73. The service sent the letter to Ms X’s current address. The Council adjusted Ms X’s benefit claim and Council Tax details in April 2016 and corrected her contact address.
- The benefits service cancelled Ms X’s HB claim for her current address from February 2016 as she did not return the review form sent in March 2016. The benefits service sent the cancellation letter to Ms X’s old address. The cancellation changed the CTS Ms X received and the Council sent a revised Council Tax bill with liability for £996.09. The Council issued Ms X with a summons due to non-payment for 2015 and said she also owed £70.92 for her 2015/16 Council Tax liability plus enforcement costs of £135. The Council referred the summonsed balance to their enforcement agents to recover from Ms X.
- Ms X spoke to the Council Tax service in April 2016 following contact by the enforcement agents. A Council Tax officer saw the service sent all Council Tax notices for Ms X to her mother’s address. So, recalled the account from the enforcement agents, withdrew the summons and costs for 2015 and issued a new bill for £1155.55 to Ms X. The bill included amounts due from both 2015/16 and 2016/17.
- Ms X contacted the benefits section about her HB entitlement. A benefits officer noted the Council sent a review form in March 2016 to Ms X’s old address. Ms X complained as her landlord issued her with a notice seeking possession due to rent arrears. Ms X asked a manager to call her landlord confirming a mistake with her HB causing the arrears.
- A senior benefits officer spoke to Ms X and established her Council Tax liability started from 20 October 2015 and not 7 October 2015. The officer updated Ms X’s Council Tax account to show this and reinstated Ms X’s CTS due to the Council sending the review form to the wrong address. The officer called Ms X’s landlord to say there would be an HB payment to clear her arrears.
- Due to reinstating Ms X’s CTS, the Council issued her with a new Council Tax bill on 22 April 2016 for £215.12 for the years 2015/16 and 2016/17. The Council said the bill was payable in instalments from June 2016 to January 2017. Ms X paid the instalment for June and this crossed with an instalment reminder. Mrs X paid the July instalment and complained to the Council about an outstanding balance of £5.21 for her Council Tax at her old address. The Council said it was due to an adjustment to her benefit entitlement.
- Ms X paid the August instalment but put the reference number for her old address. So, it went to her former account. HMRC told the Council Ms X’s tax credits had increased for 9 August to 22 August 2016. The Council updated Ms X’s HB claim due to the increased tax credits and issued her with benefit decision notices on 11 August 2016. The increase in tax credits reduced Ms X’s CTS payments.
- The Council issued Ms X with a revised Council Tax bill on 11 August 2016 for £194.48 due to the change in her CTS. The bill did not include Ms X’s August payment due to it going to the wrong account. The bill included payments due for 2015/16 and 2016/17 and the Council issued Ms X with a new instalment plan to pay her liability.
- The Council responded to Ms X’s complaint about her Council Tax liability at her old address. It said it had now moved the August payment to the correct account. The Council told Ms X her next instalment was due in September and she also needed to pay £11.48 to bring the account up to date.
- Ms X did not pay the September instalment so the Council issued her with a reminder notice. As it was the second reminder issued to Ms X during the tax year the Council issued a summons in October 2016. This was for the full outstanding balance of £145.04 for 2016/17 as Ms X did not pay and bring her account up to date.
- Ms X queried the summons in November 2016 saying she had not received a bill because it the Council sent it to the wrong address. An officer explained the Council updated her address in April 2016 and sent all the bills to the correct address. So, it correctly issued the summons in October 2016. The officer said the Council transferred the August instalment to the correct account and sent her a revised bill in August 2016. The Council’s records show the officer offered to set up a payment arrangement which Ms X declined. And Ms X said she would be disputing the summons and outstanding Council Tax at both addresses. The officer advised Ms X this would not prevent recovery action progressing. Ms X asked for a manager to call her back.
- The Council says Ms X asked to pay her Council Tax over 12 months rather than 10 in November 2016. However, as it had already summonsed Ms X at that point it had withdrawn the right to pay in statutory instalments. But the Council agreed to allow her to pay in 12 monthly instalments for the next Council Tax year in 2017/18. Ms X’s bill in March 2017 included an instalment plan for 12 months.
- Ms X disputes she declined a payment arrangement.
Events in 2017
- Ms X’s MP sent a complaint on her behalf in January 2017 as she did not receive a call back about her concerns. The Council told the MP it had correctly dealt with the recovery action on Ms X’s account and asked her to set up a payment arrangement.
- In April 2017 Ms X contacted the Council about her HB entitlement in August 2016 as her landlord received a reduced payment. Ms X said her tax credits increased that month due to child care costs. Ms X emailed the Council in June 2017 setting out the child care charges she paid in August 2016. Ms X asked the Council to backdate her HB to cover the shortfall.
- The Council replied the information did not come from her child care provider. And HB rules say a person must tell the Council of a change in circumstances which will increase entitlement within a month of it happening. So, the Council decided not to allow the change about child care costs and apply it to her claim. The Council told Ms X of its decision on her HB.
- Ms X contacted the benefits service in September 2017 querying her HB award for August to September 2017. Ms X said her tax credits increased again due to child care costs over the summer. Officers advised Ms X to send a letter from her child care provider. The Council issued a reminder to Ms X in October 2017 as she did not pay an instalment as needed. Ms X sent proof of her child care costs for summer 2017 but an officer did not capture the information correctly to Ms X’s account.
- Ms X sent the information again. The Council decided not to apply it to her claim as she did not send the information within one month of the change of circumstances as needed. The Council told Ms X its decision and her HB award remained unchanged. The Council issued a summons as Ms X did not pay in line with the amount due on instalment.
- In November 2017 Ms X contacted the benefits service about the summons and said she had been paying regularly. A benefits officer explained the changes to her CTS due to receiving higher tax credits in August 2017. Ms X explained it was due to paying child care costs. The officer said Ms X was late providing evidence for her claim. Ms X asked for a call from a senior officer.
- A senior officer called Ms X in December 2017 and left a message explaining why the Council could not apply her child care costs. The officer asked Ms X to provide an update of her self-employed earnings as the Council held information dated 2015. The officer advised her to appeal the decision not to include her child care costs for August 2017. Ms X sent an appeal in December 2017 to the HB team. In February 2018 Ms X chased the Council for a reply. The Council treated Ms X’s appeal as a complaint.
Council’s response to Stage one complaint
- An officer considered Ms X’s complaint and responded in February 2018. The officer said the Council updated her benefit claim in August 2016 due to increased child tax credits. This reduced Ms X’s entitlement to HB and CTS. The officer said the Council sent Ms X decision notices about her reduced entitlement with a revised bill.
- The officer said the Council responded to her complaint via her MP in January 2017. But Ms X did not contact the Council until April 2017 about the reduced HB entitlement in August 2016 and then made it aware of her child care costs. The Council decided not to allow the change due to late information. The officer said benefit laws allow it to extend the time limits in certain circumstances where there are special reasons why the person did not tell the Council of a change within one month.
- The officer noted the Council’s June 2017 letter did not tell her about the right to appeal the decision not to include the child care costs in the claim for August 2016. The officer considered it likely Ms X would have appealed if known. So, the Council could have considered in August 2017 whether there were special reasons for the delay.
- The officer said the adviser Ms X spoke to in November 2016 should have noted the bill issued in August 2016 was due to a change in her CTS. And so, if the adviser transferred her to the benefits section to discuss the matter then it may have highlighted the issue of child care costs for August 2016 sooner. So, the officer agreed to include Ms X’s child care costs in the assessment period for August 2016. The officer asked Ms X to provide this information within one month.
- The officer referred to Ms X’s payment arrangement with the enforcement agents for 2016/17. The officer said once Ms X provided the child care cost information the Council would update her claim and review her account for that tax year. The officer told Ms X to continue to pay in line with the agreement until then.
- The officer said the Council updated Ms X’s benefit claim in August 2017 due to increased tax credits for August to September 2017. Officers asked Ms X to send proof of her child care costs when she queried her entitlement. Ms X provided this in October 2017 but it was late and not allowed. The Council wrote to Ms X in November 2017 explaining the decision.
- The officer saw the November 2017 letter did not fully explain why the Council did not include her child care costs nor tell Ms X of her appeal rights. Ms X contacted the Council again in November 2017 and told the information she sent in October 2017 was not on the Council’s records. Officers advised Ms X to appeal the decision.
- The officer found Ms X tried to email an appeal to the Council in December 2017 but wrongly entered the email address. The Council became aware of her appeal later that month when Ms X sent the email as part of a complaint. The officer found the advisor did not capture all of Ms X’s email of October 2017 and this caused confusion when Ms X contacted the Council again in December 2017. The officer apologised for any confusion and said she had allowed Ms X’s appeal about the late notification. So, the officer included Ms X’s child care costs for the period in August and September 2017.
- The officer said the Council would send an HB payment of £228.60 to Ms X’s landlord. The officer credited £67.77 CTS to Ms X’s account reducing her balance for 2017/18 to £232.44. The officer agreed to remove summons costs of £135 from Ms X’s account in November 2017 due to the issue with her reduced benefit entitlement during August 2017. This reduced Ms X’s outstanding balance for 2017 to £97.44. The officer adjusted Ms X’s payment arrangement to show the new balance of £97.44 due on 7 March 2018.
- The officer apologised to Ms X for the delays and confusion experienced in trying to resolve her benefit entitlement for 2016 and 2017. The officer asked Ms X to ensure she told the Council within one month of any child care costs she incurred during the summer. This would allow the Council to update her claim without delay to prevent any further problems with Council Tax liability.
- Ms X responded the Council failed to take account of the case brought against her in the magistrate’s court. Ms X said this was despite her contacting the Council for information. And considered the Council would not have brought the case against her but for its delays in responding to her. Ms X said she paid amounts towards her Council Tax each month causing her financial difficulties. Ms X asked for an increased remedy and her name removed from the list of cases passed to the magistrate’s court.
Council second response to Stage one complaint
- Ms X provided information on her child care costs so the officer investigated further and responded to Ms X with a second stage one reply in March 2018. The officer reviewed Ms X’s Council Tax file from October 2015 when she moved into address two. The officer explained the actions taken on Ms X’s case. The Council issued the summons in 2016 and accepted it sent it to the wrong address. So, withdrew the summons and costs and recalled it from the enforcement agents.
- The officer considered the Council correctly issued the summons for 2016/17. The officer’s reasoning was because even if the Council was aware of Ms X’s child care costs for August 2016 at the time. And if she had made the August 2016 payment to the correct account, then her instalments would have been about the same as the original instalment plan from April 2016.
- Ms X made no further payments after August 2016 until November 2016 so the Council issued the second reminder in September 2016. As this was the second reminder issued in the financial year the Council correctly issued a summons when Ms X did not bring her account up to date.
- The officer referred to Ms X’s contact in November 2016 and the view an adviser should have passed Ms X to the benefits section to discuss the change in her CTS. So, this may have highlighted the issue of child care costs for August 2016 sooner and may have prevented the Council passing Ms X’s account to enforcement agents. Due to this the officer recalled Ms X’s account from the enforcement agents and agreed to refund enforcement fees of £186 to Ms X’s account.
- The officer also agreed to compensate Ms X further by removing the summons costs of £120 and Liability Order costs of £15 from her account for 2016/17, even though it correctly issued the summons. The officer advised Ms X her Council Tax account was now in credit by £119.151. The Council could refund her or offset it against her balance for the new financial year 2017/18.
- The officer provided Ms X with a statement account for the closing balance of her previous address and for the years 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18 for her current address. This included a breakdown of Ms X’s CTS. The officer explained the Council does not publish the names of residents who have attended court for non-payment of Council Tax. Ms X remained unhappy with the response and asked to go to Stage two of the Council’s complaints procedure.
Council response to stage two complaint
- The Council responded to Ms X’s stage two complaint in May 2018. It reviewed the stage one response and considered the investigation and findings comprehensive. But did not recognise the impact of the time taken to resolve matters on Ms X. The Council noted the officer’s second extensive review of Ms X’s account and this corrected mistakes. And although it correctly issued the summons, the officer removed all enforcement and summons fees as a goodwill gesture.
- The Council recognised it had taken time to correct her complaint and it was unacceptable. The Council apologised for any distress caused and accepted improved communication may have resulted in identifying the issues with the child care costs sooner. The Council offered Ms X £75.00 as a compensation payment. The Council says the offer of £75 is according to its guide for time and trouble payments depending on the impact to a customer.
- The Council accepts it did not issue the summons in 2015/16 correctly to Ms X as it sent all notices to the wrong address. This was fault by the Council. However, it withdrew the summons, recalled the account from the enforcement agent in April 2016 and removed all associated costs. So, I consider the Council’s actions have remedied any injustice caused to Ms X in 2015/16.
- In August 2016 Ms X’s child tax credits increased reducing her CTS. Ms X did not tell the Council about the increase and it issued a new Council Tax bill in August 2016. The Council advised Ms X to pay £11.48 to bring her account up to date. As she did not do so the Council issued a reminder. This was the second reminder during the tax year so the Council correctly issued a summons in October 2016.
- However, the officer dealing with the stage one complaint considered the Council Tax adviser in November 2016 should have noted the August 2016 bill was due to a benefit reassessment when speaking to Ms X. And referred Ms X to a benefits officer so may have resolved the issue of the child costs sooner without referring matters to an enforcement agent. The Council agreed to remove the costs of £135 although correctly applied, recalled the account from the enforcement agent and refunded the £186 fees Ms X paid to them. So, Ms X has benefitted from the Council’s decision and action on her account for 2016.
- Ms X disputes whether she declined a payment arrangement. But I have seen no evidence to support her allegation and I do not intend to pursue any further investigation on this point. This is because due to the information I have seen Ms X defaulted on the instalment arrangements agreed in 2016. So, I consider it likely that she could be in the same position even if the Council agreed a payment arrangement in 2016. And the Council issuing a liability order to ensure it receives payment.
- In April 2017 Ms X queried her benefit entitlement for August 2016 which was due to an increase in child tax credits. Ms X sent late information which the Council did not allow. It advised her of its decision but did not tell her of her appeal rights. I consider the failure to advise of her appeal rights was fault by the Council.
- Ms X queried her benefit entitlement for August to September 2017 due again to an increase in child tax credits. Ms X also sent information late about her child care costs and the Council did not allow this. The Council again failed to tell Ms X of her right of appeal. Ms X emailed an appeal to the Council when told of her appeal rights. It is unfortunate the Council did not initially receive her appeal due to Ms X using a wrong email address. But I cannot say that was due to any fault by the Council.
- The Council accepted it mislaid some information Ms X later resubmitted. I consider this was fault by the Council as it should ensure it correctly captures information provided by applicants. However, the Council has considered and allowed Ms X’s appeals for 2016 and 2017 and included the change in benefit due to child tax credits. This has now reduced Ms X’s balance and placed her Council Tax account into credit.
- I consider there was fault by the Council in failing to advise Ms X of her appeal rights and for losing some of her information. But I consider the Council has remedied any injustice caused to Ms X by allowing her appeals. This is because I cannot say for certain whether Ms X would have appealed or they would have been successful if she had been made aware of her appeal rights sooner. The Council has now acted to adjust her accounts, sent her a full statement of account for 2015 to 2018, apologised and offered her £75 in compensation.
- Ms X was required to provide information to the Council within one month of a change of circumstances which may affect her entitlement to benefits. Unfortunately, Ms X did not do so for August 2016 or August 2017. So, due to this I consider the offer of £75 as a suitable compensation payment and do not recommend an increased financial remedy in this case.
- The Council’s investigations into Ms X’s HB and Council Tax accounts have been thorough and it has acted to resolve Ms X’s concerns. I do not consider I can add anything to the Council’s investigations or achieve anything further for Ms X.
- The Council has agreed to pay Ms X £75.00 in compensation for the time and trouble she has been caused in the way it has dealt with her HB and Council tax accounts. The payment should be made to Ms X within one month of the date of this decision.
- I am completing my investigation. The Council has accepted it was at fault in the way it issued one Liability Order against Ms X. It has accepted it was at fault as it did not tell Ms X of her appeal rights against decisions on her Housing benefit. The Council has apologised, acted and offered Ms X suitable compensation for the distress caused.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman