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West Northamptonshire Council (21 011 872)

Category : Benefits and tax > Council tax

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 05 May 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr N complains about the Council not providing calculations of his council tax reduction awards. He also complains about the Council’s decision on one of those awards. We uphold the complaint about the calculations. But we have not looked at the substantive issue about the decision. That is because it is a reasonable expectation for Mr N to appeal that decision.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr N, complains:
    • the Council has not provided him with council tax reduction calculations when he has asked for them, despite this being an agreed remedy from an earlier complaint;
    • the Council has not carried out some other changes agreed in the last decision;
    • the Council delayed notifying him about a change in his council tax reduction calculation;
    • the new calculation was wrong and it took him making a complaint for the Council to change it;
    • the Council has not backdated its new decision.

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What I have investigated

  1. For the reasons explained at the end of this statement, I have not investigated Mr N’s complaint about whether the Council’s council tax reduction calculations were correct.

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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. 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 Mr N;
    • made enquiries of the Council and considered its response;
    • spoken to Mr N;
    • considered our earlier decision;
    • sent my draft decision to Mr N and the Council and considered their responses.

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What I found

Legal and administrative background

Council tax

  1. Council tax is a tax made on domestic properties. Councils issue one bill to each household. Residents of dwellings are usually liable for council tax from the date they move into a property.

Council tax reduction

  1. Each council has its own council tax reduction (sometime called council tax support) scheme; offering help with meeting council tax costs to those on a low income. Eligibility for these schemes is means tested.

What happened

Background – Mr N’s earlier complaint

  1. Mr N has complained before about various issues around his council tax reduction award. One of those complaints was about the Council not providing detailed calculations to give him enough information to understand how it arrived at its decisions.
  2. Our decision on Mr N’s earlier complaint was against one of the councils that merged in April 2021 to form the Council. We found fault that the Council did not set out the council tax reduction calculation after Mr N had asked for it.
  3. We accepted not all taxpayers needed or wanted detailed calculations, as most awards were relatively straightforward. But for those that did request an explanation, a calculation was needed so a taxpayer could understand how the Council had worked out an award. The Council agreed taxpayers should not have to complain before the Council provided detailed breakdowns.
  4. In the course of our investigation, the Council had already provided Mr N with detailed calculations for the issues that formed his complaint.
  5. In response to that earlier complaint, the Council also said it would change the wording on its council tax bills to explain the right for a taxpayer to request a written statement setting out the reasons for a council tax reduction decision. It said it would make that statement in bold on the page.
  6. After the decision the Council’s benefit service emailed its staff advising them they “should be flexible in how it treats requests for information”. It changed the back of its council tax bills to include the agreed statement which now reads:

“You are entitled to a written statement setting out the reasons for the reduction decision or, details of the appeals procedure. Please contact us within one month to request this …”

  1. It later clarified that providing the bold type was not something it could do (this was not something the Ombudsman had recommended).

The first provision of calculations to Mr N

  1. After our final decision, the Council wrote to Mr N. Partly this was to advise him of changes it had made as a result of his complaint. But it also provided Mr N with some information about calculations for council tax reduction for a period after that which the Ombudsman had investigated.
  2. Mr N wrote back to the Council noting the information the Council had provided him was only the headline figures and not a full calculation of how it had calculated his council tax reduction. This contact escalated into a further complaint. As part of its complaint responses the Council provided Mr N with the detailed calculations he sought.

The September notification

  1. In September 2021 the Council wrote to Mr N with an amendment to his council tax reduction award, backdated to July. It said the reason for the change was because of a change to his daughter’s income leading to a change in the council tax reduction non-dependant deduction. It advised the change was due to information from the Department of Work and Pensions.
  2. Mr N complained about the Council’s new decision. He also asked for the council tax reduction calculations for the new decisions.
  3. The Council’s complaint responses:
    • advised it was experiencing high demand, which is what caused the delay in its processing the notification of the change to Mr N’s council tax reduction. It apologised;
    • provided the council tax reduction calculation figures as part of its second complaint response;
    • agreed to change Mr N’s council tax reduction award on receipt of further information from him. Mr N disputed the date the Council started the change from.

Was there fault by the Council?

  1. The Council has made some changes as it agreed to do in response to our earlier decision. But I agree with Mr N that the information the Council gave him after the changes was still not enough to allow him to understand the steps in its calculation. I find fault with this information.
  2. Mr N also complains about the Council not agreeing to comply with other parts of the matters it agreed to change as part of the last complaint. I have considered each of these but they do not warrant further investigation. This is because the Council has now made changes or it has explained to Mr N why it cannot do what it advised it would do.
  3. I find the delay in dealing with the change to Mr N’s council tax reduction (from July to September 2021) was fault.

Did the fault cause an injustice?

  1. Mr N was put to some unnecessary time and trouble and endured some frustration in getting from the Council the calculations he wanted.
  2. With the delay in changing the council tax reduction award, the Council later changed its September decision. It also apologised for the delay. I find that is a suitable remedy for that fault.

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Recommended action

  1. I recommended that, within a month of my decision, the Council’s benefits team clarified with its officers that when a taxpayer asks for a calculation or statement of reasons, this needs to include enough information to allow the taxpayer to understand the figures it used in reaching its decision. At a minimum this should include a breakdown of income (for example earnings, other benefits and so on), and the component parts of the amount the Council compared that income to (‘the applicable amount’).
  2. I also recommended the Council apologises to Mr N for his unnecessary time and trouble and frustration caused by the faults I have identified.
  3. The Council has agreed to my recommendations.

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Final decision

  1. I uphold this complaint. The Council has agreed to my recommendations so I have completed my investigation.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not investigated whether the Council’s council tax reduction calculations were correct. This includes the matters Mr N disputes about the correct date for the changes the Council made to his council tax reduction. 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 reduction entitlement. It also has the power to say how much council tax Mr N owes. The Ombudsman can only make recommendations. For these reasons, I consider it reasonable to expect Mr N to use his right to appeal to the tribunal to resolve any remaining dispute he may have about how much council tax he 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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