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

Welfare Reform: amendments to protect claimants

Our Chairman, Rev Paul Nicolson, had this letter on Welfare Reform published in yesterday’s Observer:

This week peers will discuss two amendments to the welfare reform bill tabled by Baroness Hollins and Lord Ramsotham, related to the coalition’s careless imposition of damaging debt on our poorest fellow citizens. They are supported by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Mind and 20 other NGOs. Officials of job centres and local authorities are currently legally prohibited from enforcing recovery of overpayment of benefits against claimants who could not have known they were being overpaid; that sensible bar has been removed by the Commons. Peers will try to retain it.

They will also endeavour to ensure that officials will make themselves formally aware of the facts and circumstances of claimants, including their health, before they decide to reduce their poverty incomes by imposing sanctions and penalties, and therefore debts. This is the normal legal procedure, but ministers have expressed their disdain for the law by saying they prefer officials to use “common sense” and that appeals to tribunals don’t need legal aid.

Marmot: new data on the link between wealth and health inequalities

This morning Sir Michael Marmot published data showing how unequal health outcomes are between the richest and poorest parts of the country. Life expectancy and time spent in good health are shown to be heavily linked to social standing.

Some key point picked out by Randeep Ramesh in today’s Guardian are:

  1. 60% of five-year-olds in some of Britain’s poorest areas do not reach a “good level” of behaviour and understanding – double that found in wealthier suburban parts of England.
  2. Marmot, a public health specialist and author of Fair Society, Healthy Lives, said: “Education and child development are key for health. It is the educated who stop smoking … we know the key driver of teenage pregnancy is not getting early child development. You are not going to get pregnant as a teenager if you develop as a child.”
  3. There was also an alarming health gap opening up within areas. Marmot pointed out that in [Z2K’s home borough of] Westminster the average life expectancy of male residents was 83, five years longer than the English norm, but this masked wide disparities. The poorest in the London borough could expect to live 17 years less than the richest.

This evidence futher supports the need to support a minimum income standard across the UK so that people can afford to feed them selves and thier children a healthy diet, heat thier homes and while staying out of debt. The to the UK of failing to do this are currently  unpriced but likely to be large. The government already predicts that mental health (which is strongly linked to debt) costs the economy £105 Billion a year.

We must hope that the Welfare Reform Bill, due for publication next week, recognises the negative implications for everyone of imposing poverty incomes on the poorest.

Economic Injustice and the Disintegration of Mixed Communities

by Rev Paul Nicolson, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust.

Delivered at the Defend Council House Lobby in Committee Room 7 at the Parliament at 1pm on 11 Oct 2010.

The decision to cap housing benefit is a spectacular example of economic injustice. It continues decades of the disintegration of economically mixed communities, and hits the poorest households below the belt – while protecting the speculators and landlords who profit from high rents and therefore high housing benefit.

I was a Parish priest in a beautiful village in the Chiltern Hills from 1982 to 1999. Most people have seen it on television, where it is called Dibley.  During that time, a combination of the sale of council houses and private speculation ended the mixed community of rich, middle class and poor. The right to buy led to the sale of council houses to sitting tenants for £25,000 they are now being sold on at around £250,000; the villagers’ rented cottages were bought by a speculator in the 1940s and sold off for a fortune every time a tenant died. You have to raise at least ££400,000 to live in Dibleyland now unless you are a servant, a farm labourer or a vicar in tied houses. Continue reading