Z2K helps client win complaint against Hackney Council

A recent case demonstrates some of the hardships which homeless people can experience when in emergency accommodation.  Through an unfortunate set of circumstances they can find themselves accruing charges which they previously were unaware they had to pay.  The below case outlines how a client was suddenly expected to pay Council Tax, following a Valuation Office re-rating from Business Rates to Council Tax.  It also highlights the unreasonableness of some boroughs who don’t take clients’ financial circumstances properly into account when they are in arrears.

Mr “L”, his wife and their two children were made homeless in September 2014.  He made a homeless application and Westminster City Council placed the family in emergency accommodation in Hackney.  Their accommodation was in a hotel, but was self-contained with a bedroom, living room and separate bathroom and kitchen.  Westminster provided a charge sheet stating how much Housing Benefit the family would get, the amount of rent they would be charged and the amount of service charge they would have to pay.  Council Tax wasn’t mentioned as the property was rated for Business Rates.

In July 2015, the Valuation Office re-rated the flat in which Mr L’s family was staying in from Business Rates to Council Tax.  This was backdated until 2010.  The Valuation Office sent this report on to Hackney Council.  However, Mr L himself was not notified about the changes until March 2016 when he received a notice stating, “New introduction of client responsibility for council tax.”  Three weeks later, he received a Council Tax bill of £1791.15 for the years 2014/15 and 2015/16.

In July 2016, Mr L received an invoice for £162 a month for these “arrears” – an arrangement he had not agreed.  A month later, after receiving a first reminder letter, he contacted Hackney and was told that he had no option but to pay the £162 a month.  Payment arrangements could only be made if there was a liability order incurring additional costs added to the arrears.  Mr L said that the he could only afford to pay £5 a week towards the 2014/15 and 2015/16 arrears as he also had to pay full council tax for the current year (2016/17).  Hackney council did not ask him for a means statement or offer any flexibility.  Unable to afford this, he paid £20 a couple of weeks later.  Hackney issued a default notice the following day.  No Final Reminder was sent, but a court summons was issued at the start of 2017.

Z2K was concerned at Hackney’s attitude, and so I submitted a complaint on the grounds that it should have made more efforts to establish who was in the property in July 2015, which would have reduced Mr L’s arrears.  I also argued that liability orders should not have been sought for these arrears before any payment arrangements were made as claimants incur additional costs, and that the Summons had not been issued properly as no final reminder had been sent.  More broadly, as well as questioning its refusal to allowing flexibility in the payments, I submitted that Hackney needs to introduce statement of means form, so it can accurately assess people’s finances and set up affordable payment arrangements.

In response, Hackney accepted it had not issued the court summons properly and knocked £50 off Mr L’s arrears.  This did not go far enough, and so I referred the complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman.  The LGO’s decision has just been published.  It concludes, “I can see no reason why Hackney Council could not enter into a repayment arrangement when Mr L first contacted it.  In fact, I consider it should have made such an offer when sending backdated bills in March 2016.”  The LGO also agreed that Hackney should have made more effort to establish who was in the property in July 2015 and ordered it to write off Mr L’s debt between then and April 2016.  In addition, Hackney was instructed to reduce his arrears further by £250.  Disappointingly, although it criticised Hackney’s refusal to enter a payment arrangement, the Ombudsman didn’t rule it should change its policy.

This judgement goes some way for Mr L and others facing Council Tax arrears.  However, I would argue that it should have gone further.  Local authorities really ought to properly establish what people’s means are when asking for arrears to be paid.  How else are they going to know if a resident can actually afford to pay the amounts requested?  By establishing a claimant’s circumstances, a local authority can save money by reducing the number of people who default.  In addition, use of statement of means and flexible payment arrangements could ease the stress on low-income residents and avoid administration, court and bailiffs fees, thus enabling residents to get out of the cycle of debt from having to borrow money elsewhere to pay their Council Tax arrears.  Even though the LGO hasn’t ruled using statement of means form is necessary, I hope Hackney will in future follow the good practice elsewhere by those authorities who do listen to those in arrears and agree to affordable payment arrangements.

Fighting the benefit cap: a case study

Westminster city hallJane is a single mother who lives with her 21 year old autistic son, Harry.  Although Jane is Harry’s registered carer and he is in receipt of a range of disability benefits, because the housing benefit claim is in her name, Jane is nonetheless affected by the £500 per week benefit cap.

This has seen Jane’s housing benefit reduced by over £100 per week, which has jeopardised both of their accommodation.  We assisted Jane to apply for a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP), which was successful, but Westminster have made this conditional on her contributing £20 per week from Harry’s disability benefits.  We are currently helping Jane to challenge this by way of internal review, but are also looking into more permanent solutions. Continue reading

‘Doors closing on housing benefit claimants’ London Assembly report

housingcrisis1Today’s publication of the London Assembly Housing Committee’s report on the consequences of welfare reform in the Capital is a surprisingly muted affair.  Most of the committee’s recommendations call for the Mayor to monitor this or the Government to review that – proposals which you will struggle to get much media interest in.  But it does highlight the four-fold increase in the number of homeless applications driven by the end of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy and finds that landlords are increasingly reluctant to let to those on Housing Benefit. Continue reading

Z2K responds to the Mayor’s draft Housing Strategy

housingcrisis1Yesterday marked the close of the consultation on the Mayor of London’s draft London Housing Strategy, and so Z2K was been hard at work finalising our response.  Overall, our view is that this strategy is a big disappointment.  There’s just no way the very limited set of actions contained within it will address the Capital’s escalating housing crisis.  That’s why we are calling on the Mayor to strengthen it in several key areas before he submits it to the Secretary of State for approval.

The strategy has a long and convoluted history.  Boris finally published his first housing strategy in February 2010 – nearly two years after becoming Mayor.  However, before the ink was dry, he decided the Coalition Government’s cuts to capital investment and policy reforms meant it needed updating and he published some “initial proposals” for consultation with the London Assembly.  A “Revised” London Housing Strategy was published for public consultation in 2011, followed by another 18 months’ deafening silence. Continue reading

Future of London’s private rented housing – Z2K’s view

Earlier this week we submitted a response to the London Assembly’s Housing and Regeneration Committee’s review of the future of London’s private rented housing.  

The Committee is seeking to identify what is required to ensure tenants in the private rented sector have standards of housing equal to those found in the social rented and owner occupied sectors – decent conditions, security of tenure and affordable housing.

In our submission we argue that both rent controls and increased security of tender are necessary to address the problems that exist in the private rented sector, especially for low income tenants and those in receipt of housing benefit.

For example if tenants had increased security of tenure, they could enforce their rights without the fear of being evicted.  As time passed and the worst offending landlords realised that they could no longer shirk their responsibilities, they may become more proactive about maintenance and emergency repairs, thus reducing the need for enforcement at all.

You can read our full submission here.