WHEN Scottish Borders Council hired a private company to target householders who have been erroneously or fraudulently claiming a Council Tax discount the decision was questioned by many but the results they achieved in a year appear to vindicate that decision.
Following investigations by Northgate Public Services, based in London, 450 people who were claiming the 25 per cent single person discount (SPD) have now been removed from the register.
The firm, which was contracted on “a no win, no fee” basis has already netted themselves nearly £17,000, having been paid £40 for every householder who was discovered to be wrongly receiving the allowance.
And the council should have an extra £114,000 in Council Tax income by the end of the financial year on March 31 as a result of Northgate’s intervention.
It was not the hiring of the company which concerned Borders Party leader Councillor Nicholas Watson last year, but rather the tone of the letters sent out to around 4,400 SPD claimants who attested they were the “only liable adult” living at the address.
Having obtained the names of all 18,000 Borderers in receipt of the discount, the firm narrowed down its search for possible abuse of the system by using the Experian credit report data base.
The subsequent letters, incorporating SBC’s logo, to the target group demanded the names, details and previous address of other adults living at the house along with their relationship with the claimant.
In large print, the letter stated: “We may cancel your discount from the date you first claimed it or it was last checked if you do not respond promptly. Even if you are in receipt of Council Tax benefit you still need to respond within 14 working days.”
The small print of the Northgate missive noted: “The personal information you have given on this form will only be used for Council Tax purposes, but may be shared, as permitted under the Data Protection Act, with other council departments, the police and other public bodies for the purposes of recovery of debt, prevention or detection of fraud or the prevention of crime.”
But the contract was defended by council leader David Parker who stressed the “outstanding record” of Borderers in paying their Council Tax on time and in full.
“I am sure the vast majority of Borderers will be please we are ensuring everying is being done to make sure the correct amounts of tax are paid across different categories,” he attested.
And he said it would have cost the council £20,000 just to ask all SPD recipients in the region to complete a review form.
This week Gary Smith, SBC’s revenue and benefits manager, revealed the success of the exercise with the discount withdrawn in 450 cases.
“Of these, 262 Council Tax payers told us about a change they had not previously advised us about and another 204 did not respond to the Northgate canvass of 4,402 recipients...and their discount was cancelled,” said Mr Smith.
“However, 22 Council Tax payers contacted the council after their discount had been cancelled and, as a result of that contact, discount was reinstated.
“We are still collecting the 2011/12 Council Tax so the final payment figure is not yet known, but the expected increase in collection is £114,000.”
A new four-year contract for the recovery of Council Tax arrears has just been awarded to Walker Love Sheriff Officers to chase approximatedly 4,500 Council Tax and Non-Domestic Rates accounts with arrears totalling between £3million and £5million.