The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) has heavily criticised Cotswold District Council 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 LGSCO said.
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 LGSCO said Cotswold 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.
The Ombudsman also found the council did not publish any information about a discretionary relief policy and did 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,” the LGSCO said.
The Ombudsman called on the council to:
- apologise to the man
- pay him £300 for his distress
- reconsider his request to write off his arrears
- write to him with reasons for its decision with reference to its recovery policy
- publish a council tax discretionary relief policy on its website
- provide training or guidance to relevant staff to ensure they inform customers of any opportunities to apply for benefits, discounts or relief
- ensure they consider such requests in line with relevant policies
- 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.
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."
Cllr Mike Evemy, Cabinet Member for Finance at Cotswold, said: “We have apologised unreservedly to the resident for any distress and uncertainty caused and we are working with them to resolve their specific situation.
“We have already started implementing the recommendations within the LGO report to avoid this situation happening again. As soon as we were made aware, our policies were not suitable we immediately started work to change them and they are scheduled to be changed shortly.
“We always aim to be understanding and support our residents sympathetically. During the pandemic, our teams have worked very hard with over 1200 residents to support them with council tax payments and relief during what was a very challenging time for so many. Unfortunately, in this situation we didn’t get that right and we have learnt from it to improve in future.