Private firm’s ‘alarming’ purge on Council Tax discount claimants

SCOTTISH Borders Council has defended the use of a private company to target householders who are erroneously or fraudulently receiving a 25 per cent Council Tax discount.

TheSouthern can reveal that around 5,000 letters have been sent out by the firm – Northgate Public Services, based at Twickenham in London – to those currently benefiting from the so-called single person discount (SPD).

It is understood the deal with SBC involves a “no win, no fee” arrangement, with Northgate receiving £40 for each householder removed from the SPD register.

The firm, which was contracted by the council last month, was issued with the names and addresses of all 18,000 Borderers who currently receive the discount. It has narrowed down its search by using the Experian credit report database.

If, based on that information, Northgate suspects someone may be claiming the discount falsely or inappropriately, letters are sent out to check out if recipients are, indeed, “the only liable adult” living at the property.

The letters, which incorporate SBC’s logo, contain a form asking for declarations that the householder’s circumstances have either stayed the same or changed.

The names, details and previous address of other adults living at the house, along with the relationship with the claimant, are demanded.

Northgate warns householders that information supplied will be verified and that anyone supplying false information will be liable to a fine.

In large print, the letter states: “We may cancel your discount from the date you first claimed it or it was last checked if you do not respond to this letter promptly. Even if you are in receipt of Council Tax benefit, you still need to respond [within 14 working days].”

And the small print of the letter from Northgate notes: “The personal information you have given on this form will only be used for Council Tax purposes, but may be shared with other council departments, the police and other public bodies for the purposes of recovery of debt, prevention or detection of fraud, or prevention of crime as permitted under the Data Protection Act 1998”.

Opposition councillor Nicholas Watson (Borders Party) said this week he supported the use of Northgate, but revealed: “I am not the only councillor who has been contacted by people who were alarmed or even offended by the letter.

“Having given information to SBC before, they have no wish to disclose details to a third party in Twickenham.

“I do think the letter should have been more tactfully written, explaining what this exercise is about, and I have asked for it to be better worded if we use Northgate again next year.”

But handing the review of SPD households to Northgate was defended by SBC leader David Parker.

He said the council had an ongoing relationship, spanning several years, with the company which already supplied computer systems for SBC salaries.

“We have an obligation to ensure that people are claiming council tax benefits correctly and, if they are not, we should be ensuring we recover what they are supposed to pay,” said Mr Parker.

“Personal information is perfectly safe and is only used as part of the review of Council Tax payment and the information is not available for other purposes.

“The reason for asking a private sector company to do this is that they are best placed to carry out this type of work and they do it successfully for other local authorities. It would not have been easier or cheaper for us to do this in-house and it is much better we use a specialist organisation who carry out this type of work more frequently to ensure this work is carried out swiftly and correctly.

“At a time of difficult financial constraints maximising the income that we generate from Council Tax payments is critical.

“The Borders public have an outstanding record of paying their council tax on time and in full and we routinely have some of the best collection rates in the country.

“I am sure the vast majority of Borderers will be pleased to hear we are ensuring that everything is being done to make sure tax is paid and that the correct amounts are paid across the different categories.”

Gary Smith, SBC’s revenues and benefits manager, said that for the council to ask all 18,000 SPD recipients to complete a review form would cost in excess of £20,000.

“With Northgate, the exercise will be self-financing from the increased Council Tax income the council will receive as a result of removing discount where it is not appropriate,” added Mr Smith.