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Cotswold council criticised for poor tax relief response

Cotswold District Council has been heavily criticised by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman for the way it handled a man’s request for help paying his council tax during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The man requested help with his council tax payments, in part because of the impact of the pandemic on his finances. However, despite keeping to a reduced payment plan, the council sent him letters warning his payment was overdue, causing him distress.

The Ombudsman’s investigation found the council did not give the man clear information about when the payment plan would end or that he would face recovery action irrespective of keeping to payments.

The council did not clearly explain its debt recovery policy, and acted contrary to the information it did provide the man; that it would stop further reminders. The council also did not suggest the man apply for discretionary relief, despite him telling officers he was struggling to pay his bills.

Significantly, the Ombudsman found the council did not publish any information about a discretionary relief policy and does not appear to have any set criteria for considering a request.

When the man asked the council to write off his debt, he was told he did not have exceptional circumstances. But the council did not provide any reasons for its decision, and so it cannot demonstrate it followed a proper decision-making process.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:

“People falling on hard times in the Cotswolds are being placed at a significant disadvantage by the council not making them aware of its Council Tax discretionary relief scheme, and not prompting them to apply when they say they need help. And even if they do apply, my investigation has found there is no criteria for how the council will consider their application.

“I am particularly disappointed with the council’s response to my report. There have been repeated unacceptable problems with communication and I now call on the council to not only improve its services to people in the district, but also its response to my office.”

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case the council should apologise to the man and pay him £300 for his distress. It should also reconsider his request to write off his arrears and write to him with reasons for its decision with reference to its recovery policy.

The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case the council should publish a council tax discretionary relief policy on its website. It should provide training or guidance to relevant staff to ensure they inform customers of any opportunities to apply for benefits, discounts or relief, and to ensure they consider such requests in line with relevant policies.

The council should also remind staff of the need to provide clear information about any payment plans at the outset, including how or when they will end, details of any review and warning of any further recovery action.

Article date: 26 August 2021