COTSWOLD District Council has been heavily criticised for the way it handled a man’s plea for help in paying council tax during the coronavirus pandemic, writes Carmelo Garcia.
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has said there were “repeated unacceptable problems with communication” with the council, which has apologised unreservedly to the resident.
The man requested help with his council tax payments, in part because of the impact the pandemic was having 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 local authority also did not suggest the man should 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 was told it 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.
And 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.
District council finance cabinet member Mike Evemy said they have apologised unreservedly to the resident for any distress and uncertainty caused.
“We are working with them to resolve their specific situation,” he said.
“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 1,200 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.”