London Borough of Merton (21 005 278)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 27 Mar 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss J complains about how the Council has dealt with her council tax support award. She says the amount it paid her was wrong. And it confused matters by changing an earlier discretionary decision to write off an overpayment. The Ombudsman’s decision is we will not look at whether the amount of council tax support was correct, as Miss J can appeal that issue. But we have upheld the complaint, as the Council’s administrative error led it to errors on Miss J’s council tax support account, that it then took some time to rectify.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Miss J, complains the Council has:
    • made various errors with her council tax support award and therefore with the council tax it wanted her to pay;
    • did not correctly calculate her council tax support for parts of the period of the award;
    • refused to look at the paperwork she has gave it.
  2. Miss J says this has caused her stress and financial difficulty.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  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)
  3. The Valuation Tribunal deals with appeals against decisions on council tax liability and council tax support or reduction.
  4. 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)
  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. As part of the investigation, I have:
    • considered the complaint and the documents provided by Miss J;
    • made enquiries of the Council and considered its response;
    • spoken to Miss J;
    • sent my draft decision to Miss J and the Council and considered their responses.

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What I found

Legal and administrative background

  1. Council tax is a tax made on domestic properties. Councils issue one bill to each household.
  2. Council tax support is the Council’s scheme for reducing a council tax bill for those on a low income. Eligibility for council tax support is means tested. The Council’s scheme says if an applicant is entitled to universal credit (a Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) benefit), it works out entitlement to council tax support based on the amount of universal credit they receive.

What happened

  1. Miss J has been receiving universal credit since 2018. From September 2019 she stopped work. This affected the amount of universal credit and council tax support she was entitled to. Miss J has been discussing with the Council issues about her council tax and council tax support since early 2020.
  2. In July 2020 the DWP revised Miss J’s universal credit award. This was after she had asked to appeal. The DWP then sent the issue for its relevant team to review entitlement.
  3. Miss J contacted the Council, as the change in her universal credit had not had an affect on her council tax support entitlement. In September, the Council advised it had checked her claim and could not find any errors in its assessment. It advised her of her appeal rights against a council tax support decision. It also sent her the universal credit statements it had used. It advised her to contact the DWP if there was anything wrong with that information.
  4. In October the DWP sent the Council a series of revised universal credit awards covering February to August 2019. The Council stopped Miss J’s council tax support claim. It says this was because it wrongly inputted the information from the DWP onto its system.
  5. The inputting error led to the Council calculating it had given Miss J £603.93 too much council tax support. It reclaimed the payment it had made to her council tax account. In October council tax sent Miss J a bill for the gap this had left in what she owed it.
  6. Miss J contacted her MP and asked to complain. She was frustrated she had given the Council information but the Council had not acted on it. The Council’s response said it had to use the information the DWP gave it. It had checked its decisions against that information. And its view was its council tax support claim mirrored her, then, current universal credit award. I have seen the document the Council checked. This shows Miss J’s universal credit calculation as last having been changed in July 2019.
  7. In November, the Council decided it would write off the council tax support ‘over-award’, rather than asking Miss J to repay it. Its reason was because it accepted the DWP’s delay in revising its decisions (and then advising council tax support) had caused Miss J confusion. The Council re-credited the amount to Miss J’s council tax account, so removing the arrears there.
  8. The decision to write off the overpayment did not alter the Council’s decision to close Miss J’s council tax support award. So she enlisted the support of a DWP adviser. The adviser sent the Council universal credit notices from March to November 2020. In response to a complaint by Miss J, the Council’s officer then manually went through each of the universal credit awards. This led her to the conclusion the Council’s earlier decision was wrong. And:
    • it should have paid Miss J an extra £446.07 council tax support; but
    • the Council had already decided not to recover the overpayment it had originally found. So it offset the £446.07 against the £603.93 it had previously written off.
  9. The Council also restarted Miss J’s council tax support award with full entitlement for the rest of the year, with no outstanding balance. Miss J’s March 2021 bill, for the new council tax year, showed council tax support covering 100% of the charges.
  10. Miss J asked to escalate her complaint, as she continued to question the Council’s calculations. The Council looked again at its calculations and revised again how much council tax support it should have paid (to £527.26). It said:
    • its revised view was it had overpaid Miss J £72.60 (and not £603.93 as previously advised); so
    • she had still benefited, despite the fault it had identified (ie: it had still written off some overpayment, although not as large as it had first thought); but
    • it could have clarified this earlier; as part of its stage one complaint response. It apologised for Miss J’s confusion and stress;
    • it noted there was still a month (September 2019) where it did not have information about Miss J’s universal credit award.
  11. Later, the Council changed its decision again. It decided Miss J’s universal credit for the ‘missing’ month (see paragraph 20) was likely to be the same as the universal credit in the months before and after. It revised Miss J’s council tax support again, leading to a credit on her council tax account.
  12. Miss J complained to the Ombudsman, as she was confused by the Council’s differing calculations. In response to my enquiries, the Council:
    • advised that it was only when its officer worked on the account that it became apparent the universal credit information was out of date;
    • advised its experience was out of date universal credit information was most likely to happen when the DWP had made retrospective changes to a claim after a successful appeal;
    • sent me guidance its benefits’ team had written in response to Miss J’s case. This new procedure was to guide officers on what to do on claims when there had been multiple retrospective changes to universal credit.


  1. Miss J was concerned the Council kept changing its council tax support decisions. She was understandably confused about what each new decision meant for her council tax account.
  2. The Council advised Miss J it must use the DWP’s universal credit information when assessing her council tax support entitlement. I agree with the Council on this – that is how its council tax support scheme works (see paragraph 10).
  3. The problem was that, although the DWP revised its decision in July, it did not give the Council its new universal credit calculations until October. I acknowledge how frustrating this must have been for Miss J. But it was not because of fault by the Council.
  4. When the Council did receive notifications from the DWP, it wrongly inputted this information onto its system. This led it to cancel Miss J’s council tax support award and to decide it had overpaid her. I find that that inputting error was fault.
  5. The Council decided to use its discretion to not recover the council tax support it had already credited to Miss J’s council tax account. The Council’s reason was because it accepted the DWP’s delay caused confusion.
  6. The Council deserves credit for this decision. But the problem was that, because the Council had not identified its inputting error, Miss J’s council tax support claim remained closed. So she asked to complain. This led to the Council revising its original decision after it realised the mistake caused by the inputting error.
  7. The Council now accepts that it could have done more at that point to avoid its need to revise Miss J’s award twice more. I find that was fault.
  8. The result of all those recalculations was Miss J’s council tax support award ended up the same as it would have been if the Council had not made its inputting error. So there was no extra injustice in monetary terms to Miss J in those calculations – she did not owe the Council anything extra. And she did not lose anything from the new calculations.
  9. But the time to work out what had gone wrong did prolong the injustice caused by the original fault. This was both in terms of Miss J’s time and trouble and in some raised expectations and uncertainty. These injustices are sufficient to warrant a further remedy.

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Recommended action

  1. I recommended that, within a month of my final decision, the Council:
    • write to Miss J apologising for the faults I have identified;
    • as a symbolic recognition of her injustice, pay Miss J:
      1. £150 for her avoidable time and trouble;
      2. £150 for the uncertainty and stress flowing from the faults I have identified.

The Council agreed to this remedy.

  1. The guidance the Council has written is a suitable service improvement for the fault I have found.

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Final decision

  1. I uphold the complaint. The Council has agreed to my recommendations. So I have completed my investigation.

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Parts of the complaint I have not investigated

  1. I have not investigated whether the Council’s council tax support calculations were correct. The Valuation Tribunal can consider a dispute about any calculation by the Council of how much council tax someone should pay. Therefore the restriction described in paragraph 4 applies.
  2. Parliament has created the right to appeal to the Valuation Tribunal in situations such as this. The Valuation Tribunal has the expertise to consider the various decisions about council tax support entitlement. It also has the power to say how much council tax Miss J owes. The Ombudsman can only make recommendations. For these reasons, I consider it reasonable to expect Miss J to use her right to appeal to the tribunal to resolve any remaining dispute she may have about how much council tax she should pay. Therefore I have not investigated that part of the complaint.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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