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London Borough of Enfield (20 010 307)

Category : Benefits and tax > Housing benefit and council tax benefit

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 16 Sep 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss B complained about the way the Council dealt with her housing benefit and council tax support claims following a change in her circumstances. We found the Council at fault for taking a year to rectify an error in her claims which meant she was underpaid by more than £6,000. We do not find any other fault in its actions. The Council has agreed to pay Miss B £250 for the distress and hardship she was caused.

The complaint

  1. Miss B complained that the London Borough of Enfield (the Council) in connection with her council tax support and housing benefit claims made errors with her claims, provided incorrect and confusing information, failed to act in a timely manner on information Miss B has provided and failed to respond properly to her complaint. As a result of these failures Miss B incurred rent arrears and experienced significant distress and frustration.

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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 Social Entitlement Chamber (also known as the Social Security Appeal Tribunal) is a tribunal that considers housing benefit appeals. (The Social Entitlement Chamber of the First Tier Tribunal)
  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. I have considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant, made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided. Miss B 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

2019

  1. Miss B was in receipt of housing benefit and council tax support. In September 2019 she started a job at a local college. Prior to this she had been a self-employed childminder. She told the Council on 21 September 2019 and the Council verified her earnings with HMRC. It sent Miss B a decision on her housing benefit and council tax support claims on 24 October 2019. It referred to other previous earnings as a childminder but asked her to clarify if she was still self-employed.
  2. In December 2019 the Council verified her earnings again with HMRC and updated her claim with effect from 1 November 2019. It sent another decision notice which still included the self-employed earnings. Miss B contacted the Council to say the college was her only job and she no longer had any self-employed earnings.
  3. The Council revised her claim in January 2020 and removed the self-employed earnings from December 2019, the date Miss B confirmed the change.

2020

  1. In September 2020 Miss B informed the Council that her hours had increased. In October 2020 the Council requested details about her son’s circumstances. On receipt of her response the Council identified an error in the way it had treated her son and noted it should have amended the mistake in November 2019 when Miss B provided the information. It amended her claim, paid her nearly £5000 in housing benefit and over £1000 in council tax for the previous year.
  2. In October 2020 Miss B informed the Council that her hours had increased but she did not work during the holiday periods and received no income then. The Council verified her income with HMRC and reviewed her claim identifying an overpayment due to the increase in her earnings.
  3. In November 2020 HMRC informed the Council that Miss B was still self-employed, so the Council wrote to her asking for clarification. Miss B was annoyed at this request and said she had provided the information previously: her only job was at the college, and she had ended her self-employment in September 2019. The Council apologised for the inconvenience, but said it had a duty to check if there had been a change in her circumstances.
  4. On 17 December 2020 a third party when providing their new address for council tax purposes, gave Miss B’s address in error. The Council closed her council tax account, and she received a bill at her address but in the third party’s name. The Council then suspended her housing benefit believing she had moved out. Following contact from Miss B, who was annoyed at another instance of inaccurate information, the Council corrected the error within 4 days.
  5. Miss B made a formal complaint about the errors with her claim. The Council responded at the end of January 2021 providing a full chronology and explanation of all the actions taken since September 2021. It confirmed her current employment circumstances and said it would continue to update her earnings regularly with HMRC. It apologised for the delay in rectifying the error over her son and for the issues caused by the misinformation from HMRC.
  6. Miss B was unhappy with the response and escalated her complaint. The Council responded in March 2021. It said it had no record of Miss B informing the Council in September 2019 that her self-employment had ended. It explained that it had asked again for her employment details in 2020 due to information received from HMRC: it had recorded and understood the information correctly in 2019 but it had to check nothing had changed give the contact from HMRC. It said it understood she was not paid during the holidays, but it calculated her earnings from the information provided by HMRC on a regular basis. When she receives no pay and the Council has evidence of this from HMRC or Miss B, it will amend her claim accordingly. It provided a contact email address to provide any changes in her earnings.
  7. Miss B remained unhappy and complained to us.

Analysis

  1. The Council was at fault for the long delay in identifying and rectifying the error in Miss B’s claim regarding her son. Miss B was without a significant amount of money for a year, and this caused her significant hardship.
  2. I cannot identify any other fault in the way the Council has dealt with her claims. It has acted without delay on information provided by Miss B and HMRC in respect of her earnings and notified her by letter of the decisions on her claim giving her a right of appeal against them. It also provided detailed complaint responses explaining what had happened to her claims and why.
  3. It is unfortunate there were two mistakes arising from the receipt of wrong information. But I cannot criticise the Council for acting on the information provided, and I note it resolved each issue within a matter of days.

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Agreed action

  1. In recognition of the injustice Miss B experienced from the delay in paying the correct benefit for a year, I asked the Council (within one month of my final decision) to pay her £250.
  2. The Council has agreed to my recommendation.

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Final decision

  1. I consider this is a proportionate way of putting right the injustice caused to Miss B and I have completed my investigation on this basis.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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