I never had any trouble with Hammersmith & Fulham Council when it was Labour-controlled. When the Tories took control in 2006, it signalled the beginning of attacks on the borough’s poor, the low-waged, the homeless, the disabled and children. Within two years, I would become embroiled in a very long battle with the council. And it is a battle that is far from over.
In 2008, after a period of unemployment, I signed off the dole and took a job as a cycling instructor for Kingston Council. I duly informed the council of my change in circumstances. The council stopped my Housing Benefit (HB) but not my Council Tax Benefit (CTB). Normally, when HB is stopped, CTB is also stopped; the two benefits always work together. But at Tory-controlled Hammersmith & Fulham, incompetence and maladministration have been developed into art forms. I asked the council what it was playing at and why they didn’t stop the CTB. They could not provide me with an answer and sent me a massive bill for CTB arrears instead. There was no apology. Nothing. Just pay up or else.
I began my PhD in September 2009. I had a job and so didn’t need to claim any benefits. However in February 2010 I was made redundant. In desperation I suspended my studies (which I am entitled to do) and claimed Jobseekers Allowance, HB and CTB (which I am also entitled to do). I was paid HB but, by December 2010, the Council decided that I was not entitled to HB and sent me a bill for £944. I even provided them with a letter from my university that informed them of my suspension of studies. It was ignored. The Jobcentre had no problem with my suspension and appeared to know the law better than the Council, who took it upon themselves to move the goalposts. The council has acted illegally by not only sending me this bill but referring the matter to their bailiffs.
But that’s not all.
As a full-time student (I have recently changed my status to part-time because of ongoing financial difficulties) I am entitled to a Council Tax exemption. In 2009 and 2010 I provided the Council with certificates of exemption. In 2009, they took a incredibly long time to process the certificate and subsequently helped themselves to a year’s worth of council tax from my account (that’s theft). After cancelling the direct debit in January, they decided to help themselves to more money later the following year (again, that’s theft), thus making me overdrawn without prior authorization. The Council did not apologize nor did it reimburse me for the bank’s charges. Instead it told me that the money would be used to reduce my CTB arrears. It wasn’t. They tried to claim that they had “technical difficulties” but refused to elucidate what those “technical difficulties” were.
The Tories at H&F council claim that the authority is heavily in debt and needs to make cuts. But it would also seem that they have advised their HB and CTB teams to refuse benefits to people or find ways to claw back the monies paid by fabricating a lack of entitlement. There is also the element of sheer incompetence: the council are slow to reply to correspondence and frequently (possibly deliberately) misplace or lose documents that are sent to them by Recorded Delivery. I am still waiting for a reply to an email that I sent to the council last week that questioned their cavalier attitude to benefits claimants and the extra-legal methods they employ to claw back those benefits.
The Council expects me to give up and pay up but they underestimate my resolve. I have been consulting with the Citizens Advice Bureau at the Royal Courts of Justice (the local Citizens Advice Bureau is just as useless as the Council) with a view to taking legal action against them and I will press for the maximum in compensation.
Furthermore, it is my view that H&F council wants to remove all social housing tenants and benefit claimants from the borough, which they have recently labelled “The Borough of Opportunity”. It’s a borough of opportunity but not for those who are on incomes of less than £100,000 per annum or those who live on council estates or who are disabled or homeless.
H&F council has appeared in Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column 13 times and I often wonder how many other people in the borough have had similar experiences to me. If you have been a victim of H&F council’s incompetence or maladministration, then I want to hear from you. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
UPDATE 19/4/12 @1422
Recently I have sent a number of letters to the Council by Recorded Delivery (or Signed For). The Council denies ever having received the letters, even though I have proof that they were delivered. I suspect foul play and I am determined to get to the bottom of this matter.
I also notice that H&F Tories claim that “Residents satisfaction with the council climbs again”. They justify this by citing a recent residents survey that they conducted. It’s funny, but I don’t recall being asked for my opinion. I also suspect that the survey was worded in such a way as to favour a particular, flattering outcome for the Council, which is actually one of the most complained about councils in the country. I will quote a snippet from the blog here.
Residents’ satisfaction with local council services has risen again so it now rivals some of the traditionally best regarded councils in the country.
75% of respondents in a recent ‘Tri-borough’ survey, which polled around 500 people over the phone, said they were satisfied with Hammersmith & Fulham (H&F) Council’s performance. This compares to 77% of residents in Westminster and 85% of residents in Kensington and Chelsea – which have both historically been two of the most well thought of council’s in the UK.
In a separate H&F poll, known as the annual residents’ survey (2011), 62% of respondents said they were satisfied with the council’s performance – up 2% on 2010.
The Dear Leader was jubilant,
“These latest survey results bring us closer still to our two neighbouring boroughs putting us in a small band of elite UK councils with residents’ satisfaction of 75% or above.
“We are the only council in the country that is consistently cutting council tax, reducing debt and boosting residents’ satisfaction while protecting front-line services.”
“Our residents are overwhelmingly telling us that we are on the right track and, while there is more to do, we are proud to be leading the way in delivering more for less in the age of austerity.”
Which residents are these, I wonder?