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Coventry City Council (21 000 208)

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

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 19 Sep 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains about a housing benefit overpayment. He says the Council reduced the overpayment in 2017 and he had repaid the overpayment. He also complains the dates on the Council’s invoices are wrong. We find fault with the Council for the delay in taking recovery action and for providing Mr X with incorrect information. We have made a recommendation.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains about a housing benefit overpayment. He says the Council reduce the overpayment in 2017 following a telephone call. Mr X complains the Council is asking him to repay the overpayment which he has already repaid. He also complains the dates on the Council’s invoices are wrong.

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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. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
  3. 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 spoke with Mr X and considered the information he provided.
  2. I made enquiries with the Council and considered the information it provided.
  3. I sent two draft decisions to Mr X and the Council and considered their comments.

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What I found

What happened

  1. In June 2017, the Council reassessed Mr X’s benefit claim due to changes in his earnings. The Council wrote to Mr X and told him it had overpaid him housing benefit of £529.48. The Council provided Mr X with three invoices setting out the total amount owed:
    • Invoice A – £313.26
    • Invoice B – £25.56
    • Invoice C – £190.66
  2. Mr X said he contacted the Council in June 2017. He said the Council had reduced the over payment following a discussion. The Council did not have any notes of the telephone call.
  3. In July 2017, the Council wrote to Mr X. The Council confirmed it had set up a payment plan of £25 per month following his recent contact. Mr X was to make his first payment in August 2017. The Council chased Mr X for his payment in August 2017. There is no evidence Mr X made a payment in August 2017.
  4. In September 2017, the Council wrote to Mr X to confirm it had cancelled the payment plan because he did not make any payments in August as agreed. In this letter, the Council confirmed the total balance of invoices A, B and C were now due immediately. The total balance owed remained £529.48.
  5. In November 2017, the Council wrote to Mr X. The Council confirmed it had setup a payment plan of £24.05 per month following his recent contact. Mr X was to make his first payment in December 2017. The Council chased Mr X for his payment in January 2018. There is no evidence Mr X made a payment in December 2017.
  6. Mr X made a one off payment of £48.10 to the Council at the end of January 2018. Following this, the Council wrote to Mr X to confirm it had cancelled the payment plan because he did not make any payments as agreed. This letter set out the total balance of invoices A, B and C were now due immediately. The total balance now due was £481.38.
  7. The Council wrote to Mr X a few days later to confirm it had set up a payment plan of £24.05 per month. Mr X was to make his first payment in March 2018.
  8. In March 2018, the Council sent Mr X another letter confirming it had set up a payment plan of £24.05 per month. Mr X was to make his first payment in April 2018. This letter also set out the balance due for invoice A was £289.21.
  9. There is evidence Mr X made a payment of £24.05 on the following dates in 2018:
    • 16 and 29 March
    • 2 and 31 May
    • 3 July
    • 2 and 31 August
    • 3 October
    • 1 and 30 November
  10. Mr X also made a one off payment of £25 in January 2019. This meant Mr X had paid the Council a total of £313.60.
  11. In January 2019, the Council wrote to Mr X to confirm it had cancelled the payment plan because he had not made payments as agreed. This letter noted the balance of invoice A, of £240.88, was now due immediately. The letter did not mention the outstanding balance of invoices B or C.
  12. At the end of January 2019, the Council wrote to Mr X to confirm it had set up a payment plan of £25 per month. Mr X was to make his first payment in March 2019. The Council chased Mr X for his payment in March 2019. There is no evidence Mr X made a payment in March 2019.
  13. At the end of March 2019, the Council wrote to Mr X to confirm it had cancelled the payment plan because he had not made payments as agreed. The letter noted the balance of invoices A, B and C were now due immediately. The total balance owed was £215.88.
  14. The Council said there was an error in its system which meant it did not take any action on the outstanding balance due until November 2019.
  15. In October 2020, the Council sent Mr X the outstanding invoices to give him an opportunity to repay the debt given it had not taken any recovery action for some time. The Council explained it had paused recovery action due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
  16. Mr X contacted the Council to dispute the amount owed as he felt he had cleared the balance. Mr X said he disputed invoices B and C as they related to dates when he was not living in emergency accommodation as he had left and was renting a room privately. Mr X also said he did not need housing benefit because he could afford the room himself. Mr X provided no evidence he told the Council he no longer needed housing benefit when he moved.
  17. The Council provided some evidence Mr X was living in the accommodation listed in invoice B and C. There is no evidence Mr X told the Council he had moved into a privately rented room.
  18. Mr X made a complaint to the Council. The Council responded to the complaint in November and December 2020. The Council paused recovery action while it investigated and responded to Mr X’s complaint.

Analysis

  1. There is no evidence to suggest the Council had agreed to reduce the overpayment in 2017. It is acknowledged the Council has no record of the telephone call Mr X said he made in June 2017.
  2. However, the Council sent Mr X a letter in July 2017 confirming it had set up a payment plan. Therefore, it is reasonable to say the Council likely discussed repayment of the overpayment during its discussion with Mr X.
  3. The evidence shows Mr X failed to make the scheduled payment. Therefore, the Council cancelled the payment plan in September 2017. Importantly, in this letter, the Council told Mr X the total balance still owed, which was £529.48.
  4. This was the same amount as outlined in the Council’s June 2017 letter, which first set out the overpayment. Therefore, this suggests the Council had not reduced the overpayment. If the Council had reduced the overpayment it is likely, on balance, a lower amount would be reflected in the September 2017 letter.
  5. Therefore, I am satisfied, on balance, the Council did not agree to reduce the overpayment amount.
  6. I note the Council sent Mr X some confusing correspondence in March 2018. This is because it told Mr X that the balance of invoice A was £289.21. The balance appears to be incorrect as even if the £48.10 paid in January 2018 is offset against this invoice, the balance should reflect £265.16. Therefore, the Council likely provided Mr X with incorrect information. This is fault.
  7. The Council also sent Mr X some confusing correspondence in January 2019. The Council cancelled the agreed payment plan as Mr X had stopped making payments. In the letter cancelling the payment plan, the Council noted there was a balance on invoice A of £240.88. However, this is incorrect as the correct outstanding balance due on all invoices was £215.88. This is fault.
  8. Given there have been several instances of the Council providing Mr X incorrect information, I consider the fault has caused Mr X some injustice. This is because it would have been confusing for him to know how much he owed the Council.
  9. However, the confusion was limited as the Council did write to Mr X in March 2019 to confirm his correct outstanding balance. If Mr X had any queries about his outstanding balance at this point, it would have been reasonable for him to contact the Council. There is no evidence he did.
  10. The evidence shows Mr X paid the Council £313.60. Given the total overpayments were £529.48, this means Mr X does still owe the Council £215.88. Therefore, the Council is not at fault for pursing Mr X for the outstanding debt as it is entitled to recover the outstanding balance of overpaid housing benefit.
  11. I have considered whether there has been any delay in the Council chasing Mr X for the outstanding balance. The Council said there was a fault in its system which meant it did not take any recovery action until November 2019.
  12. At this stage, this is fault. This is because it took the Council around eight months to take action to recover the money owed after Mr X had stopped making payments and the payment plan was cancelled.
  13. However, I do not consider the fault identified caused Mr X any injustice. This is because if the delay had not occurred, the Council would have contacted Mr X to clear the remaining balance. Therefore, the outcome is the same despite the delay.
  14. The Council explained it had paused recovery action due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Council also explained it had paused recovery action while it had investigated Mr X’s complaint. I consider these actions to be reasonable in circumstances.
  15. The Council sent Mr X its final demand for the outstanding money owed in March 2021. I consider this to be a reasonable timeframe for recovery action given the Council provided its final response to Mr X’s complaint in December 2020.
  16. Mr X says the dates on the invoices are incorrect. He disputes invoice B and C as he says he was no longer living in emergency accommodation. However, housing benefit can be paid when accommodation is privately rented.
  17. Mr X provided no evidence he told the Council he had moved from the emergency accommodation. The evidence provided by the Council showed that Mr X was still living in the emergency accommodation. Therefore, the Council could not have known he had moved and would not have been aware of the need to recalculate his housing benefit entitlement.
  18. There is also no evidence he told the Council he no longer needed housing benefit. Therefore, it is likely, on balance, the Council would have continued to pay Mr X housing benefit.
  19. For the above reasons, I am satisfied there is no fault with the invoices produced by the Council.
  20. It is open to Mr X to provide the Council with evidence of where he was living and the rent he was paying for the dates he disputes. This will allow the Council to recalculate his housing benefit entitlement for that period.

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Agreed action

  1. To remedy the injustice caused by the fault identified, the Council has agreed to apologise to Mr X for the confusion caused by the incorrect information sent to him in March 2018 and January 2019.
  2. The Council should complete the above within two weeks of the final decision.

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Final decision

  1. I find fault with the Council for providing Mr X with confusing information and for a delay in taking recovery action. The Council has accepted my recommendations. Therefore, I have completed my investigation.

Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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