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Bristol City Council (21 011 180)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 20 Apr 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains the Council delayed in issuing a council tax bill for his new home and made unnecessary, intrusive enquiries when assessing a claim for council tax reduction. Mr X also says he was given misleading and incorrect information. We have not found fault with the Council’s actions.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I refer to here as Mr X, says the Council delayed in issuing him with a council tax bill when he moved into a new property.
  2. Mr X also says the Council:
      1. made unnecessary, intrusive enquiries;
      2. provided inconsistent or misleading information; and
      3. breached his personal data by not returning supporting documents he provided.
  3. Mr X says the Council’s actions have caused stress, inconvenience and financial uncertainty.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated the parts of Mr X’s complaint about how the Council delayed in issuing a council tax bill, made unnecessary enquiries, and provided incorrect information. The final section of this statement contains my reasons for not investigating the rest of the complaint.

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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. 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)
  3. We normally expect someone to refer the matter to the Information Commissioner if they have a complaint about data protection. However, we may decide to investigate if we think there are good reasons. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered information submitted by Mr X and discussed the complaint with him.
  2. I considered the comments and supporting documents provided by the Council in response to my enquiries.
  3. Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on a draft version of this decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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Relevant legislation and guidance

Council tax billing and recovery

  1. The Local Government Finance Act 1992 (the LGFA 1992) is the primary legislation for council tax, which is a tax on domestic properties. The main secondary legislation, concerning collection and recovery, is the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 SI 613 (the A&E Regulations).
  2. The council tax year begins on the 1 April. Section 6 of the LGFA 1992 sets out who is liable to pay council tax. Individuals can appeal against their liability to the relevant local authority and, following this, to the Valuation Tribunal.

Council tax exemptions, discounts and reduction

  1. Local authorities have discretion to apply reductions and exemptions for council tax. Each local authority must have a Council Tax Reduction (CTR) Scheme in place. The schemes are a way of reducing council tax bills for those on lower incomes. The schemes will vary by location, but eligibility is means tested.
  2. The Council publishes its CTR Scheme on its website. The scheme outlines who can apply and how the Council assesses entitlement. It also confirms the Council will seek evidence from applicants in support of their application. Section 85 of the document states:

“An applicant to council tax reduction must provide such evidence in support of their application as the Council considers reasonable, within one month of being notified of their duty to do so.”

Service of documents

  1. The A&E Regulations sets out the requirements for serving documents. Section 19(1) of the A&E Regulations states:

“The demand notice is to be served on or as soon as practicable after the day the billing authority first sets an amount of council tax for the relevant year…”.

  1. This means as soon as possible, considering the individual circumstances of the case.

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What I found

  1. The chronology below outlines the key events in this complaint. It is not an itemised list of every event that took place.
  2. Mr X and his wife, Mrs X, lived in a Council-owned property (Property A) for several years. In early 2021, Mr X and Mrs X were planning to move to another Council-owned property (Property B), via a mutual exchange. Mutual exchanges allow two or more tenants in the public housing sector to move house by swapping their homes.
  3. Mr X and Mrs X inherited a different property (Property C) during this process. They opted to move into Property C in March 2021 and stop the mutual exchange that would have seen them move into Property B. At the time of the move, they had paid the council tax for Property A in full for the year.
  4. In March 2021, Mr X told the Council of his change of address. The Council closed the council tax account for Property A. Because the account was fully paid until the end of the financial year, there was a credit balance when the account was closed.
  5. On the same day, the Council set up a council tax account for Property B, the property Mr X almost moved into as part of the mutual exchange. The Council determined Mr X was liable for a week’s council tax at this address. The Council also set up a council tax account for Property C and transferred the credit balance from Property A. Because the council tax account for Property C was now in credit, no bill was issued at this point.
  6. The Council wrote to Mr X requesting financial information, so it could calculate Mr X’s CTR entitlement. The Council explained it had last assessed the household’s finances in 2017 and needed to make sure its records were up to date. The Council sought details from both Mr X and Mrs X, including pension information and all bank accounts held. The Council asked Mr X to provide this information within one month.
  7. In April, the Council issued a 2021/22 council tax bill for Property C, Mr X’s current property. The Council issued another council tax bill for Property B two days later. The Council and Mr X exchanged correspondence about what information Mr X needed to provide.
  8. Mr X provided the requested information in early May. The Council considered Mr X’s submission and found references to other bank accounts, details of which had not been provided to the Council. The Council wrote to Mr X, explaining it needed further information about these bank accounts. The Council reminded Mr X it had asked for details of all bank accounts in its previous letter. The Council asked Mr X to provide this information within two weeks.
  9. In response, Mr X contacted the Council and said he did not want to provide the information requested, explaining he did not want the Council to see details of his household’s payments and purchases. The Council said it wanted the statements to verify the household’s income and capital.
  10. The Council considered the evidence it had and noted what Mr X had said in his recent phone call. The Council wrote to Mr X explaining it would cancel the claim for CTR, as it had not received the information it had asked for. The Council said it would be willing to review its decision if Mr X provided the requested information within one month.
  11. In early June, Mr X provided the further financial information. The Council considered the submissions and wrote to Mr X again, this time asking about specific payments shown on the statements. It asked Mr X to respond within one month.
  12. Following this, Mr X made multiple complaints about this matter. I have not expanded on each submission, nor every response from the Council, as they cover similar points. I have instead focused on the most substantive complaint submissions and responses.
  13. On the 14 June, Mr X complained the Council had not issued him a council tax bill. He also said he had been subject to repeat enquiries about personal information and the Council had not returned his bank statements.
  14. The Council responded to this complaint on the 21 June. The Council said it needed further information to be able to assess Mr X’s CTR entitlement at his new address. It explained it would be able to issue a new bill, showing Mr X’s CTR entitlement, when Mr X provided the information requested by the Council.
  15. On the 21 June, Mr X responded to the Council’s queries about the specific payments shown on the statements.
  16. The Council considered the information Mr X had provided and decided everything was now accurate. The Council awarded CTR for Property C and backdated it to the point Mr X and Mrs X had moved into the property.
  17. The updated financial information from 2018 onwards created a Housing Benefit (HB) overpayment for Mr X’s previous property, Property A. The Council also calculated that Mr X and Mrs X owed council tax on Property A, because too much CTR had been awarded for some of the time they had lived there.
  18. On the 25 June, the Council generated an updated council tax bill for Property C, Mr X’s current address. The updated bill reflected the CTR entitlement awarded. It also generated a revised bill for Property A. The Council sent Mr X a letter explaining how it had calculated the new entitlements for both HB and CTR, based on the evidence provided.
  19. Mr X submitted a further complaint in July. The complaint highlighted the number of different officers Mr X had spoken with about this matter, with Mr X saying he had received conflicting information throughout. Mr X also said the letters he had received did not make sense and the Council had manufactured ways to make him pay more money. He also still had not received a bill.
  20. On the 19 July, the Council sent a copy council tax bill for Property C to Mr X.
  21. On the 23 July, the Council responded to Mr X’s complaint. In its response, the Council:
    • apologised for the multiple requests for information, but said it was sometimes necessary to make detailed enquiries and probe further;
    • explained the basis for its enquiries and said it had been necessary to determine the capital and savings for the household, to check whether any inheritance affected benefit entitlements;
    • provided an overview of events, including information it had requested, the information Mr X had or had not provided, details of the further enquiries it made, and how it reached its decisions;
    • advised that a council tax bill had been sent to Mr X on the 25 June and a copy bill had been sent on the 19 July; and
    • confirmed the outstanding council tax balance for Property C and the payment schedule.
  22. The Council did not uphold Mr X’s complaint.
  23. Mr X escalated his complaint on the 29 July, saying the Council still had not returned his bank statements and specific officers had provided a poor service. Mr X said the letters he had received had been confusing and he still had not received a council tax bill, despite requesting one when he moved into Property C. Mr X also queried why recent letters he had received were headed ‘Dispute’. The Council advised Mr X there would be a delay in responding to his stage two complaint while it investigated
  24. The Council responded to Mr X’s stage two complaint on the 2 September. It confirmed the specific matters it was responding to and went on to address the points raised by Mr X:
    • The Council said current council tax bills were sent to Mr X on the 25 June and the 19 July. The Council also said it had previously given guidance on how to set up an online account in a letter sent to Mr X on the 28 July. No postal correspondence had been returned as undelivered and the Council had checked its systems to make sure the postal address was accurate. The Council apologised Mr X had not received the bills, but said it could not be held responsible for the postal service.
    • The Council provided a copy of the council tax bill for Property C, showing the relevant reductions and payments, and noted Mr X had made a payment.
    • The Council explained the term ‘dispute’ was standard wording when there was a disagreement about overpayment decisions. It acknowledged and responded to Mr X’s concerns about the HB overpayment schedule and the timing of invoices sent to him.
    • The Council said it had been clear and consistent about what information it needed from Mr X and why. It said it tried to make its letters clear and accessible, but it sometimes had to use statutory language. The Council said individuals could call if clarification was needed. It acknowledged this would generate telephone calls for some people, but said it had to strike a balance between necessary and unnecessary information in its letters.
    • The Council said individuals could not choose which officers they spoke with when calling the contact centre, but all officers had the training needed to address account issues. It said it could not put in place a single point of contact for council tax queries for this reason, and acknowledged it could have returned a copy of Mr X’s bank statements sooner.
  25. In November, Mr X referred his complaint to the Ombudsman.

Analysis

Delay in issuing council tax bill

  1. The Council has provided evidence it produced a council tax bill for Property C in April 2021, shortly after Mr X confirmed his move there. This bill was for the full amount of council tax for the 2021/22 year and did not reflect any CTR entitlement, as none had been established at the time. Receiving this bill would allow Mr X to begin making council tax payments at his new address, while awaiting the outcome of his CTR application.
  2. Whilst Mr X may not have received the bill issued in April 2021, I can see no reason the Council should have been aware of this at the time. The first record I have seen of Mr X telling the Council he had not received a bill is when he made his complaint on the 14 June.
  3. While not receiving an initial bill would cause uncertainty about what to pay, it did not materially impact the council tax due for Property C. The eventual application of CTR reduced both Mr X’s monthly instalments and the overall amount to pay for the year, and the Council did not initiate recovery proceedings in respect of Property C at any point during this period.
  4. When informed Mr X had not received a bill, the Council explained it would issue a new bill once Mr X provided the information needed to complete the CTR assessment. It issued a revised council tax bill shortly after receiving this information and then issued a further copy when Mr X said he had not received this. In further correspondence, the Council gave Mr X instructions on how to set up a council tax account, provided further copies of the bill and outlined the payment schedule.
  5. These are the actions I would expect the Council to take and I have not therefore found evidence of fault.

Unnecessary or intrusive enquiries

  1. As outlined in paragraph 14, CTR is a means-tested benefit. Section 85 of the Council’s published CTR Scheme states the Council will seek the evidence it needs from applicants to assess a claim for CTR.
  2. The Council asked Mr X for financial information for all bank accounts held by the household, even those with a nil balance. Financial information can be sensitive or personal and I appreciate Mr X’s general concerns about making it available. I am satisfied, however, that the Council explained why it needed the information requested. The Council was entitled to ask for more information when it believed there were accounts that had not been disclosed, or payments that may have denoted a source of undeclared income.
  3. In my view, the Council did not ask for information beyond that needed to decide Mr X’s CTR application. I have not therefore identified any fault.

Inconsistent or misleading information

  1. When Mr and Mrs X moved into Property C, the Council had to administer three separate council tax accounts, each with varying periods of liability. Mr X’s application for CTR at Property C, and the supporting evidence provided, led the Council to reassess entitlements for CTR and HB at Property A, generating many pieces of correspondence. This included revised council tax bills for current and previous addresses, as well as notice of an HB overpayment and an invoice for this. It also led to the Council making further enquiries where relevant.
  2. Presented together, the volume and content of the letters generated because of a single claim for CTR may appear confusing, relating as they did to different properties and different periods of time. However, I am satisfied that none of the letters sent by the Council were unnecessary and have not identified any incorrect or misleading information. The written explanations provided by the Council in response to Mr X’s complaints remained consistent. I have not therefore identified any fault.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation on the basis there was no fault in the Council’s actions.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not investigated Mr X’s complaint that the Council breached his personal data by failing to return supporting documents he provided. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is better placed to consider complaints about data protection.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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