Bedroom Tax – Sefton Council acts unlawfully with a £3m+ cost to local taxpayers

  1. Sefton Council has issued an unlawful Benefit Decision Notice to bedroom tax affected tenants and will have to quash these Notices, which are not worth the paper they are written on.
  2. Sefton Council will need to go back and do all of its estimated 3,666 bedroom tax decisions again at an estimated cost of £733,200
  3. Sefton Council will also need to go back and reassess 12,250 Council Tax decisions again at an estimated cost of £2.5m
  4. Sefton Council’s Housing Benefit and (former) Council Tax Benefit systems are not fit for purpose and will need to be amended to make them fit for purpose at a significant but unknown cost.
  5. Sefton Council’s Chief Executive, Head of Legal Services and Finance Director should be removed for their incompetence in the matters I reveal below which will cost Sefton taxpayers and ratepayers many millions of pounds.

This example of extreme incompetence and unlawful practices means that every one of the 3,666 bedroom tax affected tenant households have formal grounds of appeal through the HB tribunals, have an immediate case to all contact the Ombudsman for a maladministration claim and also gives some strong pointers to all of the 660,000 bedroom tax affected social tenant households nationally.

What has Sefton MBC done?

I have attached a letter from Sefton Council below which have been anonymised for obvious reasons of tenant confidentiality.  This is a 2-page letter dated 05 Mar 2013 and titled “BENEFIT DECISION NOTICE.”

(a) Date – 5 March 2013.  This is before the bedroom tax / under occupation charge comes into force on 1 April 2013. The guidance given to Sefton in the A4/2012 HB circulr and all other HB officers says at section 25:

” As an award notice cannot be sent before the legislation comes in to force…”

This is doubly confirmed when the same A4 / 2012 HB circular says at 35:

“Once a claimant’s under-occupancy has been confirmed they should receive a change of award letter from the local authority explaining exactly what this will mean in financial terms. This cannot be done until the regulations come into force.”

Immediately we see this letter is in clear breach of the guidance given to local authorities from central government which they must follow.  Sefton have to go back and do these again in any case for the simple date reason.  The titling of this letter as a BENEFIT DECISION NOTICE proves there is no ambiguity what Sefton Council believe this letter to be.

This is the most minor issue I have about the lawfulness and incompetence of Sefton MBC yet it also means that any tenant who has received a benefit decision notice from their council that it also is not worth the paper it is written on and their council will need to go back and do they all again!!

Briefly, a Notice is a legal document and this Notice has not been served because it cannot be legally served until 1 April.  It is unlawful and deficient.

(b) “BENEFIT DECISION NOTICE” – This true incompetence and unlawfulness of this Sefton Council letter is that a benefit decision NOTICE like all Notices not only has to be served on you correctly, it also needs to contain specific information to be a valid Notice and this means it needs to tell the tenant how they can challenge the decision.

Sefton Council are seeking in this letter to deny the legal right of every tenant to appeal this decision and not just being incompetent by issuing an unlawful Notice!

On the reverse of this letter is a section which says “What can I do if I’m not happy with the decision that has been made on my claim?”  Then under the title “Housing Benefit” it says:

“Contact us within 1 calendar month of the date of this letter and you can either:

  • Ask for an explanation

  • Ask us to look again at the decision

That is legally incorrect and it says nowhere on this form and letter that the tenant has an absolute right of appeal – In simple and indisputable terms this letter is UNLAWFUL.

The official guidance in the A4/2012 which I restate the local authority has to follow even produces a standard letter for Sefton and all other councils to use on this point.  It says:

If you disagree with this decision you can:

• Write to the benefits section and ask for a detailed statement as to how we arrived at the decision shown in this letter.

• Write to the benefits section within one month of the date of this letter and ask us to reconsider our decision. We will look at your claim again and write to you.

• Write to the benefits section within one month of the date of this letter making a formal appeal. We will review our decision. If we cannot change the decision in your favour, your appeal will be passed directly to the independent Appeals Service.

Asking for a statement or for us to review your claim does not take away your right to submit a formal appeal.”

How clear-cut is that!

Aside from not informing tenants of their appeal rights Sefton Council’s wording also does not say the claimant (the tenant) has to put their matters in writing too.  A very significant point!  Do Sefton Council want 3,666 tenants to simply turn up at their one stop shop offices to orally ask for an explanation?  The “I don’t recall that conversation” defence perhaps?  Remembering of course that asking for information or asking the council to reconsider costs the council in time and cost!

The verbal or oral direction of challenge Sefton are attempting to limit tenants to here in this scandalous unlawful letter also contradicts the last sentence above in the official guidance which says:

Asking for a statement or for us to review your claim does not take away your right to submit a formal appeal

To recap and summarise here there are 2 issues I have discussed (a) the date issue and (b) the benefit decision notice issue.  Time to look at them in what they mean for ALL 660,000 bedroom tax affected tenants.

(a) Date issues

WHEREVER YOU LIVE, IF you have received or you do receive a purported “Benefit Decision Notice” from your council relating to the bedroom tax before or date before 1 April 2013 it is unlawful.  Your council will have to go back and do it all again as this is a deficient Notice in law

May I ask any tenant to simply comment below this and simply put Glasgow YES or Luton NO etc  – and we can build up a good ides of how many unlawful and deficient notices have been sent out by local councils.  So I will start this by saying “Sefton YES”  and that way we can get a picture of how many councils don’t know what they are doing and that will have implications for challenges, formal HB appeals and for any direct legal challenges such as Judicial Review.

The date issue also raises a ground for formal HB appeal of all 3,666 bedroom tax affected tenants in Sefton and by extension to all the estimated 660,000 nationally affected – WHEN was this decision taken?

We know it must have been before 5 March 2013 as that is the date of the letter and so the decision was taken BEFORE the DWP issued changes to exemptions under this policy for foster carers and soldiers!  The decision has been taken without full knowledge of the facts in other words and cannot be relied upon is the appeal issue here.  This is especially the case for the bedroom tax affected household with soldiers as no council up and down the country has asked for information on whether a soldier lives in the household yet they did ask for foster carers information.

In simple terms no HB department up and down the country has made a decision on which they can be ‘satisfied’ is correct in my view.

Cost of doing it all again?

The costs I have used here are the DWP derived figure of £200 for each review of the decision by the council so the 3,666 bedroom tax affected cases in Sefton is estimated at an additional cost of £733,200 to the council.

Sefton Central has 1,091 cases; Southport has 1,232 cases; and Bootle 1,343 cases according to the National Housing Federation figures released a few weeks back.

Sefton MBC also has 33,010 according to the DWP Housing and Council Tax Benefit statistics – the official statistics and note well how HB and CTB figures are always together and of these 37.11% (12,250) will be of working-age as a national average and as this letter states liable in Sefton for 20% of their council tax replacement bill.  Yet Sefton Council’s assessments of these cannot be trusted.

To explain why all working-age council tax replacement must be re-assessed, the 12,250, is due to other letters I have seen from Sefton Council to bedroom tax affected tenants. These say the original figure of £1,156.12 has been discounted by the 25% single person discount to be £867.09 per year (Correct) and this is the tenants liability (False). Yet these are bedroom tax affected tenants currently on full HB because their only income is JSA or IS.  The correct figure would be 20% of this £867.09 figure or £173.42 per year.

What this means is that Sefton Council’s finance departments figures for Council Tax and Housing Benefit cannot be trusted!  Sefton Council has the HB data figures for these tenants to use for bedroom tax purposes so they know that Mrs Jones of 1 Bootle Street, Bootle for example is on Income Support or any other benefits to determine the bedroom tax liability.  Yet if there systems were as they should they would use this information which they have to also determine council tax liability too.  But they have not clearly else the number of tenants council tax liability letters I have seen would say this is £173.42 per year and not £867.09 per year as Sefton Council claim!

In simple terms if you cannot trust Sefton Council’s figures for Council Tax then how can they be trusted for Bedroom Tax!

This again gives a legitimate and significant ground for a formal HB appeal to all 3,666 bedroom tax tenants in Sefton and that appeal right must also be extended to 12,250 working age council tax recipients there.

In other words Sefton must go back and do these again as it financial systems for which they rely upon to assess the Bedroom Tax and Council Tax are not fit for purpose in my view.  So to all other bedroom tax affected persons wherever you live if you know of new council tax replacement assessments that are wrong then that same appeal and challenge ground for bedroom tax applies to you.

Finally – how can the Director of Finance at Sefton Council whose department has just cost the council an additional £3m+ be allowed to remain in post?  Similarly how can the head of legal or the ‘monitoring officer’ who is the person who checks a council’s legal liabilities have allowed such a deficient and unlawful Notice to have been sent out in the council’s name?  Also the buck stops with the Council’s Chief Executive, Margaret Carney, for allowing this incompetence, unlawfulness and outright denial of the legal rights of vulnerable people to have happened?

Note how the letter from Sefton doesn’t say bedroom tax or under occupation charge anywhere.  It simply deducts the 14% figure from the £81.81 per week rent to give the £70.36 per week amount of Housing Benefit to be paid – £81.81 less 14% is £70.36 a reduction of £11.45 per week.

And then the errant figure for council tax replacement of £867.09 is a further £16.67 per week making a £28.12 overall ‘tax’ and payment figure on £71.70 per week JSA/IS leaving the tenant £43.58 per week to pay for gas, electric, water rates, insurances, clothing, travel and of yes nearly forgot FOOD!!

Even the correct figure of £3.34 per week council tax added to the £11.45 per week bedroom tax makes a £14.79 per week deduction – a 20.63% reduction in income in one of the lowest rent areas in the country.

You still think the bedroom tax and the welfare reform is fair?

PS – Yes Sefton is the same area where One Vision Housing, who took over the former Sefton Council housing issued the not worth the paper it was written on alleged legal ‘disclaimer’ letter I informed you about a week or so ago!

Guess what reader Adactus Housing Group has also issued such a disclaimer letter too which I will publish with comment very shortly as in some parts this is worse than the One Vision Housing one!

The offensive and unlawful Sefton Council letters are below

Sefton page 1

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68 thoughts on “Bedroom Tax – Sefton Council acts unlawfully with a £3m+ cost to local taxpayers

  1. Erewash – YES 1st MARCH 2013 (PMS) I should add that the text is the A4/2012 text but adds (DOES NOT APPLY TO COUNCIL TAX SUPPORT) between “if you disagree with any decision relating to either housing benefit or council tax benefit” and “you can”

    So as I read it, you have no right to appeal with CTS and very little time to appeal because of the date and no way to tell when it arrived because there is no postmark on the envelope as they don’t go through the stamping machines… I think my letter was about a week ago it arrived.

  2. That said… I had no change and no spare room charge in my awward… it was the same one as last year bar the ammounts from what I can remember…. It does not specifically mention the CTS difference but lumps it in with the non-dep deduction from what I can tell so how can I know what is correct or not :-/ If you want I can email you the info and you can delete these posts and I’ll try and include jpegs of pages for you.

  3. Breckland – NO

    Breckland has sent ‘information letters’ about both HB and CTB (generic) entitlement changes under the welfare reforms Neither letter provides any information about any right to appeal etc.

  4. Rossendale borough council Lancashire , benefit decision notice re BT dated 12th March 2013 ..on the back it only says ask us again to look at the decision or appeal against this decision ( this must be done in writing ) further above that it says within ONE MONTH…So based on the above its also an illegal decision notice

  5. @joe, we had 3 letters in total and information letter stating the CTS was to be 8.5% and it gave 15.44-14.13=1.31 which was incorrrect… we then had a decesion letter that has all the figures but says CT22.04 CTS15.53 which I calculate at 8.51 / 22.04 = 38.61% deduction.

    Don’t even get me started on the non-deps… an 11% increase for council tax, and 18% for HB… oh and to top it all, they used last years rent amount, not this years :-/

  6. Michelle – the Cornwall letter is still not worth the paper it is written on and the council has NOT notified you or anyone else. They will have to do it all again and that letter is not lawful

    If I am right and Cornwall is now a unitary authority then this adds another 2974 that will have to be done again to the 3666 in Sefton and the 593 in Erewash (a running total of 7233)

  7. Chrissie – how embarassing for the self-proclaimed housing legal guru and former pps to the housing minister Grant Shapps is the MP for Rossendale – Jake Berry and a Tory!

    Perhaps you would like to send him a copy of the blog and ask him how much it will cost Rossendale Borough Council to go back and do again 1,216 bedroom tax decisions?

    Running total now 8499

  8. PLEASE NOTE A GENERAL POINT – Council Tax Support is not the issue here. CTS is a local discretionary benefit not a national benefit of right such as HB.

    Yet of course the 2.19m working-age people that will lose an average of £15.68 pw in CT benefit when CTB is replaced by discretionary CTS and losing £1.79bn per year will also be chasing and competing for the DHPs with all bedroom tax tenants, all private tenants, all tenants (social and private) affected by the overall benefit cap and many others

  9. Yes. Bedford Borough Council. Dated 3rd March received 18th March. Housing Benefit minus Bedroom Tax. Benefit Period Start Date 01 Apr 2013. Based on last years rent ( rent increase as of April 1st 2013) Right of Appeal on the back.
    In the same envelope was another Benefit Decision Notice for full HB. Benefit Period Start Date 01 Apr 2010

  10. @joe is that 593 in Erewash just the BT number or everyone that claims social housing benefit as if just the BT does the guidence ignore basic yearly HB change awards and how they should be dated… if not there could be a heck of a lot more letters that need redoing.

  11. Plymouth sent you claim for HB and CTS has been reviewed from 1st april have been awarded £72.76 (short by £24.25) dated 10th March received 19/20th March CT is £14.46 liable for £19.28 received CT bill today dated 13th March motnhly is £26.31 due on 15 Apr then down to £25 from May-Jan 2014

  12. I’m in Sheffield.

    My letter’s dated 7th March. It arrived on the 20th. God alone knows where it disappeared to in between.

    It gives the April 1st start date and contains info about how to appeal, but nowhere on it does it say, “Benefit Decision Notice,” or any phrase resembling it.

    The maths on it all seems to add up, though, amongst the other information, it mentions a, “Weekly ineligible amount,” of £0.10. I don’t have a clue what that’s for.

    Does the fact it doesn’t say, “Benefit Decision Notice,” on it have any legal ramifications?

  13. @SheffieldSteve, it’ll say something like “award” “benefit notification” or some such… doesn’t have to be the main headline… mine is a mixed CTS/HB letter that says “housing benefit notification” on one bit and “notification of council tax support” on the other… there is probaly official wording, but a lot of councils have different systems so may not have follwed the rules perfectly.

  14. Joe does the section which deals with if you want to appeal or if you disagree or want further information have to be on the benefit decision notice or can it be supplied separately? My decision notice says page 1 of 1 at the bottom with nothing on the back….

    1. Every council will be slightly different but as it says in the main blog above the council needs to (a) notify you formally (the Notice) of the bedroom tax decision and (b) it has to tell you how you can challenge that decision. That said, it is highly unusual the challenge / appeal part would be sent separately

  15. It doesnt say BDN on it anywhere, it does however state that their records show I only need 1 bedroom but am occupying a property with 3 and then “This means that a 25% reduction has been applied to your eligible rent and service charges when calculating your award” then on the back it gives notices about appealing within 1 month

  16. Wirral yes, got mine today, they can f**k off, i cannot pay £22 BT and £5 CT, my appeal letter will be going to them today. They can take me to court, i dont care now, and WPH can get stuffed if they think i am paying them BT

  17. Unfortuntely the author of this piece has misunderstood the difference between guidance and law. The DWP issue Circulars as a way of telling Local Authorities what their intention is behind any new legislation. These carry no legal weight. Local Authorities must apply the regulations, they don’t have to apply DWP guidance (although normally they do).
    Every year Local Authorities send notices of claimant’s benefit for the coming year, and notices telling Council Tax payers how much their bill will be. This is done in March, up to a month before the notices take aeffect. They also reflect any changes in the legislative framework. Every year there are changes to Benefits regulations, and it is not only legal, but also quite right that advance notices are given.
    The author seems to think that Local Authorities shouldn’t notify residents of any changes until after they have happened. How would you feel about that?
    The Bedroom Tax may be an awful piece of legislation, but misguded articles like this do not help anyone.

    1. Paul – The article was written to explain in ordinary language what has happened here and used the A4/2012 and not the SI 3040 or HBGM / HBR to explain. They amount to much the same thing.

      What Sefton has done here is unlawful in a number of ways. They have not ‘notified’ the HB claimant as they cannot notify until after 1 April. A Notice needs to be in the correct form and this letter is a deficient Notice and not worth the paper it is written on. Sefton has also not informed the HB claimant they have a full legal right of appeal and they have done this by conflating the CTB and HB ‘notifications’ in one letter. That is also a disgraceful and sneaky way of reflecting that HB decisions do hold a full legal right of appeal yet CTB ones do not

      It is not I as the author who thinks LA’s “…shouldn’t notify residents of any changes until after they have happened” – That is government direction and policy

      The above is not misguided.

  18. Joe I have been looking into the lodger element to see about any size criteria and although the only place you find anything to do with size criteria is in the overcrowding bit which you know about. I have found that HHSRS do mention crowding as a hazard…. as a bonus everybody has the right to ask the housing authority to do a HHSRS on their property if they intend to take in a lodger…. this would be another great way to clog up the system, cost time etc… along with the appealing decisions………

    The Local Authorities powers
    It is not often realised that local authorities have a general duty, under the Housing Act 2004, to make sure that residential properties in their area, *all* residential properties, not just HMOs, are in a fit and proper condition. If a complaint is made to them, they will attend and do an inspection under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS).

    taken from http://www.lodgerlandlord.co.uk/2010/02/04/day-4-is-your-property-in-a-proper-condition-2/

  19. I received 2 letters from allerdale council cumbria dates 12/3/2013 and 15/3/2013 with different amounts i have to pay stating it starts 8/4/2013 mentions on back of letter the rights of appeal and states that you must get in touch with benefits section within one month of date on letter or the benefits section may not be able to consider any dispute. So it appears you have less than a month to appeal any decision

  20. Leeds, YES

    Letter received from Leeds City Council dated 5th March. However, the letter was actually physically received by me on 20th March.

    Appeals process described well but does say ‘your appeal must be made in writing within one month of date of this letter’ (by 5th April!). Yet I received letter on 20th March!

    Therefore, in effect, because of the delay in receiving letter and with Easter holidays in the way, Leeds tenants effectively have 3 days left to appeal !!!

    1. P.S. Leeds City Council have also opted to save money – as the government suggests in their A4 – 2012 document (paragraphs 25 and 35) – by sending their Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support notices in one envelope.

      Also, their letter does not state what it actually is – it does NOT state whether it is a Notification, an Award letter etc. The covering letter at the beginning of the pile of info states ‘This letter informs you of your new weekly charge’.

      The second letter ‘Your claim for Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support has been calculated from 1st April, 2013’.

  21. **UPDATE* *

    I have received legal guidance from a local housing solicitor as far as the Leeds City Council (LCC) situation. I quote:

    ‘With regard to your letter of 5 March 2013, whether or not it is a letter intended to be a notification letter, as you have responded, there are no points that can be raised in legal arguments in your case. You are exercising your right to request a review, quite correctly. If however another person fails to request a review, believing that they will receive a letter after the legislation takes effect, and they receive no such letter, that may be a different matter as the council will have acted procedurally incorrectly…..

    [some personal info removed from interim paragraphs]

    …More bad news. Due to legal aid changes there is no legal aid to help you out with a tribunal if your matter should progress to one. Accordingly I could not help you with a tribunal although a Citizens Advice Bureau might have funding to enable them to do so. The kind of challenges I am considering are Judicial Review proceedings, i.e. where there may be an argument against the legislation itself.’

    Of course, I shall attempt to take the matter to Tribunal eventually. As Joe says, this would not need a lawyer, but it might be helpful if you can find a representative – if only for moral support.. Meantime I have asked Leeds Council for more information, as suggested by Joe in his blog, and will keep you posted on any updates.

    Good luck everyone!

  22. St Helens Merseyside YES.
    Letter dated the 8th of march 2013 just got it this morning 6th of April with one month to appeal from the date on the letter. Best get down there sharpish on Monday.

  23. I would just say if you are going to appeal…Do it in writing.. Not face to face or over the phone.

    My letter is from Brighton & Hove Council.
    No franking on the envelope.
    It does say Benefits Decision. But nothing about under occupancy or Bedroom Tax.
    However, they are telling me I am already in arrears!!!
    Having always had 100% HB.
    Letter is dated 24th March.
    But received on 5th. April.
    Does say you can appeal in writing.
    So, have they covered their arses???

    Claim based on income related ESA.

    My new rent is £118.01

    weekly benefit is £88.51
    Less any overpayment recovery £10.80
    ACTUAL BENEFIT PAYABLE £77.71
    weekly gross rent is £118.01
    Benefit starts 1st. April.

    Future payments will be made 2 wks in advance 2 weeks in arrears.

    Seperate notice. says Total HB overpaid 1st. April – 14th. April £59

    As a result of this I will have to pay £39.50 a week..
    They have to be joking!!!

    Plus I have to pay council tax.

    So, do I have anything to appeal against??
    Their overpayment of £59??

    We are stuffed with no legal aid to go to a tribunal!!

    I am Disabled in a 3 bed HA house. Adapted for my needs. No 1 beds to move to!!
    Got to pay 25%

  24. Yes Bradford Met. Council Benefit Decision Notice Dated 18th March 2013 for Housing Benefit. No info about how to appeal H.B. but does state on reverse how to appeal Council Tax Reduction it states “This bill has been issued because Bradford Council classes you as liable for Council Tax charges”. So not even separate stationary for Housing Benefit.

  25. **UPDATE**

    The local Housing Support Officer has said that the amount of bedrooms stated on the Tenancy Agreement is what the Bedroom Tax is based on.

    However, the local Head of Housing Partnerships for the Council states that it is the ‘rent roll’ that determines the number of bedrooms and the level of rent reflects this.

    Two conflicting accounts of what the Bedroom Tax is based on!

    However, the fact is that the Tenancy Agreement that I signed does not state anywhere, the number of rooms, and certainly not the number of BEDrooms.

    The ‘rent roll’ (i.e. the information the Council holds on file about the rent for their properties). The level of rent reflects the number of bedrooms, according to the Council.

    This is definitely a case of two conflicting accounts. One says Tenancy Agreement, the other says it is the amount of rent charged, that determines the Bedroom Tax.

    1. P.S.

      Haven’t heard back from HB in reply to my list of questions, so I submitted my official Appeal letter, still well in time before the so-called ‘deadline’ of 1st May. This deadline despite council sending letters out as early as 5th MARCH!

      I’m still writing to every department I can think of to get answers to some specific questions, and all these replied will add to the documents I’ll submit as evidence to the Appeal. As above, some of the replies to these questions are conflicting. This can only help our case!

  26. Another update

    Just received a reply to my original ‘pre-appeal’ letter in which I asked ten specific questions.

    The reply probably half-answered just ONE of those questions, saying that council tenancies are NOT referred to the Rent Officer.

    The rest of the reply repeated the statutory stuff about who is ‘allowed’ to have one bedroom (e.g. every adult couple; any two children of the same age, etc.).

    The letter continues by repeating that I am under-occupying by one bedroom and a 14% reduction will be made. (I like ‘will be’; in fact it already has been made!). The letter ends by stating that I have one months from the date of that letter to make an appeal.

    Glad I got my official Appeal in prior to receiving this!

  27. Hi Joe

    I’m a Council Tenant of Leeds City Council. I started commenting here (on April 1st !!) because of the early date (March 5th) that the local council sent their original notification letter.

    Sorry, perhaps I should have put most of my subsequent comments into the general Bedroom Tax section of your blog.

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