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London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham (20 012 387)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 21 Oct 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms D complained on behalf of Ms E that the Council failed to make her aware she was liable for council tax when it placed her in temporary accommodation. We find the Council was at fault as it gave Ms E misleading information about whether she was liable for council tax. It also delayed and failed to appropriately respond to her complaint. The Council has agreed to our recommendations to address the injustice caused.

The complaint

  1. Ms D complained on behalf of Ms E that the Council failed to make her aware she was liable for council tax when it placed her in temporary accommodation. Ms E says a Council officer advised her that the owner of the hostel accommodation was liable for council tax.
  2. Ms E says she received a bill for council tax she had not budgeted for because of the Council’s failures. She says this has caused her financial hardship.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We may investigate complaints made on behalf of someone else if they have given their consent. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26A(1), as amended)
  2. 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)
  3. The Valuation Tribunal deals with appeals against decisions on council tax liability and council tax support or reduction.
  4. 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)
  5. 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 considered information Ms D and Ms E submitted with the complaint. I made written enquiries of the Council and considered information it sent it response.
  2. Ms D, Ms E, 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

  1. Council tax is a tax made on domestic properties. Residents of dwellings are usually liable for council tax from the date they move into a property.
  2. A council will usually collect payment through monthly instalments. If any instalment is missed the council will send the liable person a reminder. If a payment is still not made or a further payment missed, then the entire outstanding balance will be due (that is the full amount for the rest of the year).
  3. Council Tax Reduction (CTR, also known as council tax support) is a reduction of the amount of council tax payable. Since 2013, each council is responsible for running their own local CTR schemes for help with council tax. The amount of discount awarded is based on a claimant’s savings, family make up, and income. It is paid by reducing the council tax owed and issuing a new council tax bill.
  4. The Council awards a council tax discretionary payment for those who receive CTR but are still struggling to pay their bills.

The Council’s complaints procedure

  1. The Council will respond to complaints at stage one within 15 working days. It will respond to complaints at stage two within 20 working days.

What happened

  1. Ms E and her partner moved to temporary accommodation in the Council’s area on 5 November 2018.
  2. The Council’s temporary accommodation officer assisted Ms E in completing a joint application for housing benefit and CTR. The section of the application regarding the benefit calculation says, “the owner of your accommodation is responsible for the council tax”. There is also a handwritten telephone number on the application form for the Council’s council tax department.
  3. The Council contacted Ms E further about her housing benefit claim. It did not contact her about CTR.
  4. The Council says its council tax department only found out in May 2019 that Ms E was living in temporary accommodation. Therefore, it sent Ms E a bill for backdated council tax from November 2018.
  5. Ms E made a claim for CTR. The Council awarded this and backdated it to 11 December 2018. It did not backdate the award to 5 November 2018 because Ms E did not provide evidence of her income from that date.
  6. Ms E’s representative complained to the Council on her behalf on 12 March 2020. She said Ms E was not advised in November 2018 that she would be liable for council tax. She said if Ms E had known she was liable for council tax she would have set money aside. She asked the Council to write off the outstanding debt. She also said Ms E had appealed to the Valuation Tribunal about whether she was liable for council tax.
  7. Ms D took over dealing with Ms E’s case and chased the Council on 27 November for a response to the complaint.
  8. The Council responded on 18 December. It apologised for the delay in dealing with the complaint and said it was sent to an officer that no longer worked for it. It said Ms E was supported by its income support team to ensure both housing benefit and council tax payments were in place. It also said Ms E’s record showed she received CTR at some point.
  9. Ms D referred the complaint to stage two of the Council’s complaints procedure. The Council responded on 26 January 2021 and said it had no jurisdiction about matters decided at the Valuation Tribunal.
  10. Ms E remains dissatisfied with the Council’s response.

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Analysis

  1. The Ombudsman cannot investigate late complaints unless there are good reasons to do so. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. Ms E received her council tax bill in May 2019. She did not refer her complaint to us until February 2021. I have decided to exercise discretion to investigate the Council’s actions from November 2018. This is because Ms E complained to the Council in March 2020, but it did not issue its stage two response until January 2021. Ms E referred her complaint to the Ombudsman promptly after receiving the Council’s response.
  2. I am not satisfied the Council provided Ms E with sufficient information that she was liable for council tax. Although the Council assisted Ms E in completing a joint housing benefit and CTR application, the information on the form says the owner of the accommodation is responsible for council tax. This is misleading information and therefore it is reasonable for Ms E to have assumed she was not liable for council tax.
  3. The Council says there is a handwritten telephone number on one of the forms for the council tax department. It says this would indicate the temporary accommodation officer advised Ms E she should contact the council tax department. It cannot check with the officer as he has left the Council, and it has no other evidence to support this happened. While I accept there is a handwritten telephone number on the form, no other records exist. Therefore, I cannot reach a safe conclusion on whether the temporary accommodation officer advised Ms E to contact the council tax department. As I mentioned in paragraph 26 above, Ms E was led to believe she did not have to pay for council tax, and so I do not consider it was necessary for her to have taken further action at that stage.
  4. The Council says the temporary accommodation officer supports the processing of housing benefit and CTR applications by forwarding the applicant’s temporary accommodation licence agreement to the income support team. The income support team will then liaise with the applicant to ensure that both housing benefit and council tax payments are in place. The income support team contacted Ms E about her housing benefit form and asked for the relevant evidence, but did not contact her about CTR. This is fault. If the income team had contacted Ms E, she would have known she was liable for council tax much sooner and she could have submitted evidence to support her claim.
  5. Ms E completed the relevant forms in November 2018, but the Council did not bill her for council tax until May 2019. This delay is fault, which has added to Ms E’s injustice. If the Council had billed Ms E sooner, she would not have had to deal with such a large bill.
  6. The Council was also at fault for its complaints handling. It took nine months rather than 15 working days to respond to Ms E’s complaint at stage one. The Council says the officer left his role shortly after he received the complaint. While I note the Council’s response, it was at fault for not having a system in place to deal with the officer’s emails when he had left.
  7. When the Council responded to Ms E’s complaint, it detailed the housing benefit and CTR claim process, but it failed to address whether it gave her the correct advice about whether she was liable for council tax. When the Council responded to Ms E’s complaint at stage two, it failed to address the complaint at all and instead focused on Ms E’s appeal to the Valuation Tribunal.
  8. When the Council responded to my enquiries, it said it had added to Ms E’s financial hardship. It has now made a discretionary council tax award and waived the £200 that was outstanding on Ms E’s account.
  9. I welcome the action the Council has now taken to resolve Ms E’s concerns. However, I do not consider this goes far enough in remedying Ms E’s significant injustice. The Council should apologise to Ms E for the distress caused to her. Ms E has also been put to time and trouble in pursuing her complaint and the Council should make a payment to her to recognise this. It should also implement service improvements to ensure the same mistakes do not happen again.

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Agreed action

  1. To address the injustice caused by fault, by 19 November 2021 the Council has agreed to:
  • Apologise to Ms E for the distress caused to her.
  • Pay Ms E £150 to reflect her time and trouble in pursuing her complaint.
  1. By 17 December 2021, issue written reminders to relevant staff to:
  • Adhere to timescales set out in the complaints procedure and address the issues raised in the complaint.
  • Provide clear written advice to residents at the earliest possible opportunity about whether they are liable for council tax.
  • Ensure information from the housing department is passed promptly to the council tax department to avoid unreasonable delays in council tax billing.

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Final decision

  1. I have found fault by the Council, which caused Ms E an injustice. The Council has agreed to my recommendations and so I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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