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Low utilities charges

Elliot Kent
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I will keep the details on this a bit sketchy for various reasons so apologies, but would be interested on views on this proposition generally.

Claimant has been living alone in 1 bed accommodation for a number of years. Claims HB but this is refused. The LA has reviewed claimant’s gas/electric bills which show very low usage (a fraction of the average for a 1 bed property). The LA infers that the claimant cannot be “normally occupying” the property given the level of usage. Claimant says they are out of the property most of the day, almost every day and really return only to sleep at night.

Would be interested in any views or angles.

ClairemHodgson
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Solicitor, SC Law, Harrow

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power use isn’t compulsory, and many people try in various ways to cut down on their energy bills.

are the LA saying that someone on benefits should spend it all on energy bills?

ridiculous

Vonny
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have they never heard of self-disconnection

https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/Global/CitizensAdvice/Energy/PPM self-disconnection short report.pdf

HB Anorak
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It sounds as if they are using the utility bills to back up an existing suspicion: they wouldn’t routinely scrutinise utility bills and form a suspicion as a result.  It’s likely that something else has happened to make the Council think the property is unoccupied in the first place - for example returned post, unsuccessful attempts to visit and no response to the visiting card, data matching that associates the claimant with a different address, or a curtain twitcher has grassed them up - and as part of its further investigation into the matter the Council has asked to see utility bills.

Elliot Kent
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HB Anorak - 24 May 2019 08:28 AM

It sounds as if they are using the utility bills to back up an existing suspicion: they wouldn’t routinely scrutinise utility bills and form a suspicion as a result.  It’s likely that something else has happened to make the Council think the property is unoccupied in the first place - for example returned post, unsuccessful attempts to visit and no response to the visiting card, data matching that associates the claimant with a different address, or a curtain twitcher has grassed them up - and as part of its further investigation into the matter the Council has asked to see utility bills.

Yes, essentially. There was an investigation some time ago resulting in a substantial overpayment which was triggered by some neighbours having made allegations. Appeal rights are exhausted in respect of that decision. I have been asked to look at the appeal on the new claim - the only evidence included in the bundle is that of the low energy use.

HB Anorak
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Fuel bills alone seems a bit of a thin case.  I suppose if they relate to winter months they will be slightly more persuasive (really?  you only sleep there and don’t use heating or shower or boil a kettle, not even when it’s freezing outside?)  but the claimant might be able to credibly explain that away.

I think it might also be helpful to invite the Tribunal to speculate on what the claimant hopes to gain by claiming HB for a property he doesn’t occupy.  Is the rent being paid to the landlord?  Is there any suggestion that the money somehow finds its way back to the claimant?  If not, what would be the purpose of maintaining this elaborate charade for no financial advantage?  It’s similar to the issue of deprivation of capital in a CTR case - why would you?  If you do pursue that angle, you should probably first satisfy yourself that there won’t be any unpleasant surprises - an unoccupied property can sometimes be used as a clearing house for fraudulent applications for things like student finance, credit.  It’s not as easy as it used to be now that claimants have their ID verified and claims indexed by NINO - makes it harder to set up multiple identities.

BC Welfare Rights
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I did an appeal on very similar sounding facts a few years ago. It was complex and fact specific but a couple of small pointers:

-The electric and gas usage given to the council by the supplier turned out to be based on customer readings that were wrong. We were able to demonstrate that the actual readings were still low but slightly higher
-The electricity supplier confirmed that a low energy light bulb would need to be on for 43 hours to use one unit of electricity. A portable radio would need to be on for approximately 600 hours to use one unit of electricity
-The LA also checked where the person’s car was insured (someone else’s house as it happens)
-We were going to get mobile phone tracking records but didn’t in the end for reasons I can’t remember off hand
-We did get statements from a support worker, care coordinator, friends, family and therapist that were helpful
-It may also be possible to get details of visits from meter readers, repair people, housing officers, etc., which confirm occupation

seand
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I work for a housing association and we have tenants who have self disconnected and had no utilities for periods of a year or more. It’s often just gas supply but I’m sure there have been some where it is both. Some people can just live like this and I think it’s a very thin argument by the LA if this is all they have

Elliot Kent
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Thanks for all thoughts - very interesting. I do not think that this particular claimant has “self-disconnected” for what it is worth.

What I am getting hung up on is what it means for the claimant to be “normally occupying” the property in these circumstances. Most of the caselaw doesn’t really help as it generally starts from the proposition that there is some other place put forward as a possible alternative home. In this case, I think the best that the LA can do is to invite the inference that the claimant might be living somewhere else but cannot say where. If we accept the proposition that the claimant is spending very little time in the property and is out for all of the day, but their belongings and furniture are there and they sleep there when not out of town, then surely it is still their home.

HB Anorak
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For a discussion of the possibility that the claimant does not occupy any dwelling at all, but from time to time makes transient use of the premises in respect of which HB has been claimed, have a look at the Anglesey night shelter case.  You should be able to establish that your client has a better link with the property than the unsuccessful appellants in that case had with theirs, especially leaving belongings and retaining the legal right to use the property.

ClairemHodgson
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Elliot Kent - 29 May 2019 11:28 PM

If we accept the proposition that the claimant is spending very little time in the property and is out for all of the day, but their belongings and furniture are there and they sleep there when not out of town, then surely it is still their home.

even a benefit claimant is not compelled to spend all of every day in his/her home.  that pattern of occupation is no different from those of us lucky enough to have jobs and be out all day.  your client is entitled to go to the library, out for walks, whatever floats his/her boat in terms of things to do outside the home that might, at the same time, keep him/her warm without spending own money (which is a valid object).

unless they can positively show he’s staying somewhere else, they’re just spinning their wheels, surely?

John Birks
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FWIW I had a similar one where the landlord had reported to the LA that someone was not resident.

Unfortunately for him he had a water meter - that showed very little usage over a sustained period - something like 20litres per year. That did for him.

 

Mike Hughes
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The range of circumstances in which one might have low utility charges are many and varied:

- non-occupation
- hospitalisation
- self-disconnection
- good old stubbornness
- wrong meter charges

I was most definitely in owner occupation for the 4 years my water provider failed to bill me.

My friend turns his heating off every April. Wife and kids have to put clothes on if they’re cold. He’s also very much in occupation.

“Thin” is exactly how I’d describe the argument as presented.

past caring
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Elliot - you say appeal rights are exhausted in respect of the previous overpayment decision. Does that mean it’s now too late to appeal or that he did appeal and it went to FtT and he lost? And if the latter, is the appeal paperwork still available? If so, does that have anything of greater substance to it?

Elliot Kent
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PC - appealed and lost with SOR obtained and negative appeal advice all wrapped up about a year ago. Five figure overpayment recoverable. Wasn’t our case and I don’t have the papers but seems likely there was more evidence which was relevant then but apparently no longer is.

Of course, I probably wouldn’t be taking this quite so seriously if it were not for that background!