Family received threat of court action over £1 tax arrears
A Westfield family has accused Bath and North East Somerset Council of causing unnecessary stress and wasting taxpayers' money after they were sent two threatening letters on the same day over a £1 council tax error.
The letters – which cost 20p more in postage than the family owed – were received by Colin and Kim MacGuire, of Elm Terrace, last Thursday telling them they needed to pay the council £120 or face being taken to court.
Mrs MacGuire, who works at Bath's Royal United Hospital, said she came home from work to find the two red debt letters addressed separately to herself and her husband.
She said: "I spent the whole night worrying about it. I always pay the bill at The Hollies council offices in Midsomer Norton at the start of each month and initially assumed there had been a mistake.
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"I printed off the last six months' worth of bank statements to see what the problem was and checked I had paid each month."
When Mrs MacGuire called the council she was told by a B&NES call centre operator that the problem had arisen from the fact she had mistakenly made out a cheque for £118 instead of the usual £119 when she paid the August instalment.
She said: "When he told me I couldn't stop laughing. £1 – it is less than the cost of sending the two letters.
"It was an honest mistake. Why use such threats against people? And why not explain what it is all about in the letter? The letter doesn't even say which month we owed it for.
"There are people who owe thousands of pounds yet they chase us over a quid."
Mrs MacGuire said the call centre operator claimed the council had sent out similar letters a month earlier but she denies receiving them.
She added: "If I had received it I would have been straight on the phone as I was this time when the letters arrived. I even paid my bill a few days after they claim they sent the letter and no one said there was a problem."
Mr MacGuire, who works nights at Bristol Fruit Market, said he was "absolutely fuming" over the experience which he said made the couple feel like criminals.
The MacGuires, who have three children, aged 14, 11 and six, said they wanted to make other people aware of what they had been through to stop them panicking if they receive a similar letter.
Mrs MacGuire, who paid the £1 when she paid her usual £119 at the start of October, said: "It worries me that other people, particularly anyone who is older, would have been terrified to receive a letter like that. It must happen to so many people.
"After all, we did not owe the council £120, we owed them just £1. I bet they would not have been so forthcoming if it was the other way round and they owed us £1."
A spokesman for B&NES said the letter makes it clear that the amount stated also includes any money that is owed to the council within the next seven days, and since the next tax instalment was due that week the £119 usual payment was included as well as the £1 outstanding.
He also said that when a couple hold a joint council tax account it is not unusual for notices to be issued to both account holders.
He added: "Mr and Mrs MacGuire were sent a reminder notice on August 28 for £120. This amount covered the £1 underpayment for August's instalment, paid on August 3, and, as clearly stated on the reminder, any instalment becoming due within seven days – in this case £119 due on September 1.
"The September instalment was paid on September 3, but not the £1 underpayment. We sent a second reminder on September 25 for £120, £1 arrears plus the forthcoming instalment.
"The council is required by the Government to include in reminder letters any instalment due within seven days."
He added that B&NES issues 20,000 such letters to council taxpayers across the district each year and uses the same letter template regardless of the amount due.