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London Borough of Hackney (20 010 923)

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

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 12 Oct 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss B complained about the Council’s failure to pay her the correct amount of housing benefit and council tax support since the cyber-attack in October 2020. We found there was service failure in the delay in paying Miss B the correct amount of benefit and a continued delay in paying her all the money she is owed. This has caused her severe financial hardship for a significant period of time. The Council has agreed to pay her £250 and provide a time frame for paying her the outstanding money.

The complaint

  1. Miss B complained that the London Borough of Hackney (the Council), in respect of her housing benefit and council tax support:
    • reduced her benefits too quickly without waiting for her to provide proof of her son’s DLA claim in July 2020; and
    • has failed since then to review her benefit claims since then to take account of this change of circumstance.
  2. Miss B is being underpaid by a significant amount which has caused her severe financial hardship for nearly a year. The Council has not provided any timescale for when it may be able to rectify the problem.

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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)

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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

  1. In October 2020 the Council was the victim of a cyber-attack which affected many of its records and systems. It lost all of its benefit-related systems for over six months. Even when the systems were recovered the Council did not have full access and could not process many types of claim.
  2. The Council reduced Miss B’s housing benefit in July and September 2020 as it received notification from HMRC that her income had increased. On 2 October 2020 Miss B notified the Council that her son had been awarded disability living allowance (DLA) and on 9 October 2020 she sent proof of the DLA award. The cyber-attack happened on 11 October 2020 before the Council had a chance to revise her claim.
  3. Miss B complained to the Council in January 2021. It replied in February 2021 saying that it could not say when it would be able to process her claim, that it would speak to her landlord if necessary and advised her to pay her regular amount of council tax in the meantime.
  4. Miss B escalated her complaint as she remained dissatisfied. She asked for some temporary help including suspending her council tax payments. She said her council tax reduction award was incorrect and so it was unreasonable to ask her to keep paying the incorrect amount.
  5. The Council responded in March 2021 and said she could pay what she could afford until the Council’s systems were working properly again. The Council assured her that it would not send reminders for arrears during this period. It gave other advice on how to reduce her council tax bill and apologised for the uncertainty of the current situation.
  6. In July 2021 the Council amended her claim from 29 March 2021 and on 9 August 2021 paid her the backdated benefit from this date. It says it does not know when it will be able to process the remaining period back to 21 September 2020, estimated at £1100.
  7. Miss B complained to us. She said the Council’s failure to pay her the correct benefit was causing her severe financial hardship and was affecting her mental health.

Analysis

  1. The Council acted on the information it received from HMRC in July 2020 to amend Miss B’s claim. I cannot find fault with its actions, as it was not aware of the DLA award until Miss B informed the Council in early October 2020.
  2. I accept the situation after the cyber-attack was out of the Council’s control and that it has now taken some action to restore Miss B’s benefit to the correct level. However, the 10 month delay in revising Miss B’s benefit claims and the continued delay in paying her £1100 for the period from September 2020 to March 2021 is fault. It is a significant amount of money, and she has experienced financial difficulties for a long period of time.
  3. I also consider the Council’s suggestion in its first complaint response, for Miss B to pay her regular amount of council tax was inappropriate as the amount was already too high and would do nothing to ease her difficulties.

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Agreed action

  1. In recognition of the injustice caused to Miss B, I recommended the Council (within one month of the final decision):
    • pays Miss B £250; and,
    • provides her with a time frame for paying her the outstanding benefit.
  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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