The City of Edinburgh Council is under increasing pressure from student leaders and local politicians to revamp its council tax collection system after an investigation by The Journal revealed widespread incompetence in the council's exemption process.
It is understood that there currently exists a backlog of around 1,000 exemption requests waiting to be processed. Moreover, council authorities have admitted that they do not know how many payment demands are sent to individuals—mostly students—who are not required to pay the tax.
The Journal submitted a Freedom of Information request on council tax requests last month after speaking to a number of students who had received ominous letters from the council, including examples threatening residents with bailiff visits.
However, a council spokesperson revealed that it has no records on the number of demand letters sent to those who qualify for exemptions. The Journal has since been contacted by students who have been told by council operators that they were sent requests in error due to a backlog of exemption requests which have not been processed.
Presidents of student associations at Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt and Napier universities have said that council tax exemptions are a serious problem and that something needs to be done to make the system easier.
Adam Ramsay, president of Edinburgh University Student Association (EUSA) said students regularly seek advice from EUSA services over threatening letters from the council, and that it is a “substantial” problem for staff at the associations Advice Place. He said: “They need to work out a system which doesn’t require students to write to them multiple times before they are taken off the list.
“The council is astonishingly inefficient at taking students off their rolls – I had to write to them and ring them a huge number of times before the threatening letters stopped coming.”
Similarly, Carys Evans, President of Napier Student's Assocation said, “I think there needs to be better relationships with universities in terms of matriculation lists. And they need to stop being so aggressive.”
Indeed, the tone and content of the letters has proved the source of a great deal of consternation: ......
Students living in properties where all residents are in full time education are entitled to exemptions from payment, whilst since 2001 those living with non-students have not been responsible for council tax payment for the properties they live in.
Statistics obtained by The Journal have shown that almost two thirds of all properties which qualify for exclusion from council tax payment in Edinburgh are occupied or owned by students. From 15,386 exempt properties, 9566 are occupied solely by students, whilst a further 258 are not required to pay for other reasons directly related to their student status. Halls of residence are automatically exempt from payment.
Although all full-time students are eligible for exemptions, they must register exclusion from payment with the council themselves. However, it would appear that a large number of students in Edinburgh have been sent repeated requests for payment, even after filling out appropriate exemption applications.
One University of Edinburgh postgraduate student said: “We received a bailiff’s letter from the council, despite having sent off the exemption forms about a month earlier. It was quite worrying, as it only gave us a few days, after which we were to expect a group round to seize our belongings.”
He continued “I phoned up the council’s revenue collection department and the guy there put a note through to cancel the letter. But what he said was ‘it happens all the time. We’ve got a backlog of exemptions that we are trying to work through, but the instructions get sent to the collection company anyway.”
Despite Edinburgh University’s registry providing the council with a list of student applicable for exemptions, students are still required to apply directly to the council for their charges to be dropped.
However, the council has defended its exemption process. A council spokesperson said: “Students are exempt from paying council tax but it is important they contact us with their relevant personal information so we can carry out the necessary checks to ensure they are bona fide students.
“We must stress that if they send us the relevant details to prove they are a student then there should not be a problem.”
But contrary to council reassurances, the concerns of student leaders have been taken up by local politicians. Councillor Alison Johnstone told The Journal: “I have been contacted by several students who are, not surprisingly, genuinely anxious at receiving strongly-worded demands. There is a need, I think, for more accurate recording of payee details to ensure that this does not continue to occur. After all, these demands cost us all in terms of administrative time, postage, and chasing 'debts' that do not actually exist."
Lothians MSP George Foulkes has also criticised the current situation, saying that he has been contacted by a number of students concerned with the council's “aggressive tactics.”
He said: “The Council appear to have really poor records and it sometimes takes them up to four months to process information the university gives them. In that time, the council may have referred a student to Scott & Co. purely because their own records are poor. It's an appalling state of affairs and very upsetting for students in receipt of these letters."
He added; "I have written to the Director of Finance at Edinburgh City Council asking him to review this bullish practice. It's intimidating and completely over the top.”
Edinburgh City Council issued a statement in response to the criticisms: “There is usually a three-month gap between the sending out of bills and then letters arriving from the Sheriff Court regarding the outstanding amount.
"Our council tax collection office receives on average 40,000 pieces of correspondence per month so any delay in contacting us could cause problems and mean their claims are not processed as quickly as we would like.”
A further issue concerns the extent to which students—particularly international students—are provided with adequate information regarding the exemption process. Ruth Bush, President of Heriot-Watt University Students' Association said: “Demand notices are particularly stressful to international students who are not aware of the system and suddenly receive demand notices for hundreds of pounds. They are often already paying huge amounts in tuition fees and it is unacceptable to add further stress to the situation.”
She added that Heriot-Watt University ought to do more to simplify the process: “The university needs to make it easier for students to get their student status clarified. Students face so much financial stress and the university should be much more supportive of its students with these problems.”
A council spokesman countered that steps were being taken to make the system more user-friendly. He said: “The process of students claiming council tax exemptions is an issue we have identified and that is why among the steps we have taken this year was to link up with Snapfax to try and better inform students of their duty to give us all the relevant information.
"Our message to students is simple: contact us straight away with the details proving you are a student and there should not be a problem."