Cotswold District Council has apologised after being criticised 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.
An investigation by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman 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.
According to the Ombudsman’s report, the council did not clearly explain its debt recovery policy and acted contrary to the information it did provide the man. The council also did not suggest the man apply for discretionary relief.
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.
Commenting on his findings, Ombudsman Michael King 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.’
He added: ‘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.’
Asked to comment on the report, Cllr Mike Evemy, cabinet member for Finance, said that the council had ‘apologised unreservedly’ to the resident.
‘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,’ he said.
‘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.’