Help us work more closely with Council Tax

Can you help this EHN Member get better access to Council Tax data? They need an urgent response. They write:

We are currently trying to get gaining additional resources to work on Empty Homes and to improve some of the processes used for our work within the Council.

We have been pushing for several years to gain direct access to Council Tax as we all know this is fairly standard practice. But between our Council Tax and Information Governance Teams we have never been able to quite get this put in place.

We have been requested to supply examples of other Local Authorities who already have direct access to support this so we are requesting that any of those who do have (which we believe from our regional forum meetings is a fair number of practitioners) please respond to this request.

If any of the following additional info could also be provided it would be really helpful:

  • how you arranged gaining direct access and what the process was;
  • were any data protection agreements put in place/signed;
  • system used by Council Tax (if known);
  • what impact has having the access had on your job, e.g identifying properties more accurately
  • importantly, what the benefits have been for your council eg in generating more income either through identifying incorrectly registered properties, empty homes premium or NHB or simply saving time all around.
  • If any benefits can be seen specifically for Council tax (operationally) this would be very useful.

All of the above has been requested to argue why we should be given direct access especially as one of the outcomes we aim to achieve is additional data cleansing resources which will obviously required better access.

One of the main arguments against granting access is that we will be able to see other information which is data protected but we believe it is our responsibility not to abuse that and use the information correctly so would be interested to hear any opinions on this. Our response to this is the information we are allowed access to under Sec 85 Loc Gov Act 2003 is also Data Protected by all of us.

It is expected that our next meeting will be this week so we would be really grateful to anyone who is able to respond within the next few days.

Forums: 
Council tax - discounts, access to info etc

Hi,

At Exeter City Council we were given read access to Council Tax in 2013, and we now have the ability to amend the database (which is an Academy/CAPITA system) to add phone numbers, notes etc.

We used our legal department to write a paper looking into access for EH officers, which covered the following Statutory provisions

  • Section 85 Local Government Act 2003 (amending Schedule 2 paragraph 18A of the Local Government Finance Act 1992);
  • Section 237 Housing Act 2004 (In respect of interim and final Empty Dwelling Management Orders under Part 4 of the Act)
  • Section 35 Data Protection Act 1998
  • Schedules 1 and 2 Data Protection Act 1998

If you email me at empty.homes@exeter.gov.uk I can send across the full paper from legal, defining the relevant legislation, and a sample confidentiality agreement that EH officers signed in order to be allowed access.

Access has been exceptionally helpful with Empty Homes work, I can’t imagine working without it now. The most beneficial things seem to be:

  1. Time saved – rather than wasting a Council Tax officer’s time answering our enquiries, we can check data straight away. This was a serious inefficiency and meant we couldn’t be prompt with enquiries. I can now check properties instantly while on the phone to someone reporting, which saves a lot of time.
  1. New Homes Bonus – The sheer amount of data you are trawling through makes access a really high priority, as empty homes lists quickly go out of date! Also, because of the tight deadlines with this work, we were struggling to get the necessary information from CT quick enough to do the job property. The financial impact of NHB is a good point of leverage to help with negotiations. Anything that assists this process can mean financial benefit to the council, potentially.  Also, data collected by Empty homes can be uploaded straight onto the database, which is how we persuaded them to give us access to amend/add data.
  1. “Your right hand is not talking to your left” – A common complaint when we didn’t have CT access! We do need to know what the Council have recorded for a potential empty property, as it could be the owner called up Council Tax 2 weeks ago and gave them an update (e.g. We’re planning to move into it in 2 months time!). The Local Authority looks pretty incompetent when we’re holding the information we’re asking owners to provide us, just within a different department. It’s also relevant for enforcement action, as if the owner informs CT, they are informing the Council as a whole. Therefore if you’re enforcing on the property, you should hopefully have looked, with your own eyes, at the CT data, to ensure there is nothing erroneous or needs following up (e.g. someone else with an interest in the property, recent contact from the owner etc.)

I’d also stress the real benefits to your Council Tax department if you are allowed access. We’ve collected information on hundreds of properties and we add that to their databases, including phone numbers. We data cleanse for NHB, which is a serious amount of work for them, and means their database is as accurate as possible (they didn’t believe it was inaccurate until we started cleansing!) and we’ve fostered good relationships with them so we can work together on cases with serious arrears etc. so that everyone wins.

Hope that's all that you wanted to know, I'm happy to provide more information.
 

Many thanks,
Rosie - Exeter City Council

Hi Anon,

I would like to echo many of Rosie's replies.  The following are my comments:-

  • My manager and myself originally spoke to our Taxation Manager, following my first year in post when I seemed to be regularly phoning and emailing council tax to ask for information.  After a year, it was easier to discuss why access would be really useful.  It was never a problem and our council tax colleagues were extremely helpful.  They set me up with a 'read-only' access, so I cannot see any payment etc information.  I can see the name of the owner, their address and information about the property history (how long it has been empty etc), which is vital for me to do my job well.  I obviously keep this completely confidential.
  • No agreements needed to be signed to achieve the above.
  • The system used to be Pericles, but we've had OpenRevenues for quite a few years now.
  • the information I can now access helps me to do my job better and to help my empty home owners in the best way I can.  It means I can target specific properties to offer them specific help (for example, grants, VAT reductions, etc)
  • Many benefits to my council tax colleagues and myself, and subsequently for our council.  We have a regular two-way update of information.  Many local authorities have small resources for visiting officers, so they are often very busy and trying their best to cover a large area.  Where the empty homes officer can help is to be visiting the empty properties and reporting back to council tax with any discrepancies in their information.  For example they can identify where a property is not an empty/unfurnished, but used as a holiday home.  Or where a property is actually occupied and not empty.  This can be backed up with photos as 'evidence' of this and sometimes conversations with owners, emails, empty homes questionnaires completed and returned with this information.  Likewise, my council tax colleagues can pass through long-term empty home owners to me to offer advice/support.

So having access to council tax records on a 'read-only' basis reaps dividends for empty homes officers, council tax records being accurate and for the council too as appropriate council tax amounts are collected.  And of course there's the New Homes bonus etc.

Lynne Campbell, South Lakeland District Council

Lynne Leach

Demonstrate to the CT Team that you are going to help them as above and maybe throw in the Usual Suspects approach thus…

Compile a list of your most notorious empty homes/owners. This is a combo of the names of owners of your most notorious empty homes AND the names of owners who have two or more empties on your long list of LTEs.

Send the list (perhaps just 30 names) to the Debt Recovery wing (not the Billing team)of CT and ask, “How many of these Usual Suspects are on your Major Debtors lists? Are any of them at Committal stage? What can I do to help you sort them out?”

You should have targets in common. You tell Debt Recovery that you’re going to prioritise the ones that you have in common and ask if you can tackle the cases together.  Once you’ve pooled your efforts, they will see what an asset you are to CT collection. You should win them over and in time, earn access to their systems.

Maybe even share your list with Anti-Fraud, or similar.

I have read/write access to CT, as authorised, and am apparently due to get a ‘hand held’ thingy to update CT as I go. Hopefully this hand held will generate my daily work plan, drive me to visits, interrupt my conversations with traffic news and tell me when I need a comfort break.

Nick P-G
Reading BC
01189373091