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Hull MP puts record straight on Council payments debacle

Diana Johnson MP today released a letter sent to Hull City Council’s Leader over the payments fiasco that saw 9,500 Hull residents charged double for rents and council tax.

The Hull North MP wrote to Cllr Carl Minns on 14 January after the Leader of Hull City Council had described the error, which saw £900,000 taken from residents’ bank accounts, as “unfortunate”.

The decision to release the full text of the letter was made after Cllr Minns made misleading claims about its contents at Hull’s Council meeting on 17 January and in the media.

The full letter read:

“Cllr Carl Minns
Leader
Hull City Council
Guildhall
Alfred Gelder Street
Hull
HU1 2AA

14 January 2008

Dear Cllr Minns

I am writing to express my dismay that over 9,500 Hull residents who pay council bills by direct debit have been charged double for rents and council tax and deprived of money that is lawfully theirs. I understand from the local media that this money is unlikely to be paid back until the end of this week, leaving many people out of pocket.

I understand that a computer error, discovered on 9 January 2008, resulted in electronic payments of council bills being duplicated and taken a second time from some customers' accounts. This led to a total of £900,000 being wrongly taken from an unknown number of bank accounts. This mistake is hitting constituents on lower and fixed incomes who have to manage their finances carefully. It also comes at the worst time of year financially – the month after Christmas.

Given that many residents, especially those whose accounts have not been put into overdraft, have been told that they would not be getting their money back before the middle or end of this week, my main concern is that the money taken in error by Hull City Council is returned in full to all those affected, without unnecessary bureaucratic delays. Any such administrative delay by the Council would only exacerbate the difficulties caused to these residents. Many will not understand why it takes so much longer to refund the payments to them than it did to take it from their accounts in the first place.

As well as full and prompt repayment of the sums taken from customers’ accounts, I would also ask that the local authority then compensates residents who have incurred bank or credit card penalty charges as a result of the Council’s error.

I heard you claiming on one local radio station on Friday (11 January) that the £900,000 involved in the error represented only a small proportion of the funds flowing in and out of Hull City Council each month. You described the problems caused to many local people as “unfortunate”. These comments betray a lack of urgency about the problem. One point that did not figure in the comments that I heard from you was that this is Hull residents’ actual money. It does not belong to Hull City Council. It is not a favour or act of charity to return this money to its rightful owners, especially when residents have been spending time queuing up for it, sometimes at great inconvenience.

Another concern was that the first I heard about this problem was in Friday (11 January) morning’s Hull Daily Mail and on local radio stations during the course of the day. Even then, this appeared to be the result of outraged local residents speaking to media organisations, rather than the statement of apology that was eventually issued from the Guildhall. Despite this problem, which affects a significant number of my Hull North constituents, being discovered on Wednesday 9 January, I would like to know why no-one had the courtesy to inform me or my office about it, especially given that residents are likely to be seeking my assistance on the issue at advice surgeries.

Most people would accept that IT problems can occur in any organisation. It is the way that such problems are dealt with that is of key importance, including efforts to prevent such mistakes from occurring or reoccurring. I hope that you will ensure that the cause of this error is investigated fully in order see what action is needed to ensure that the chances of the mistake being repeated are minimised; and that the authority has in place the most efficient procedures for responding to any future problems that may arise.

If there are any residents who find that their confidence in paying bills by direct debit – at least to Hull City Council – is shaken by these events, I would also suggest that you remind residents of the range of alternative ways of paying council bills – including through local post office branches.

Finally, I regret that many of your frontline Council staff have found that they have an increased workload from staffing Council cash centre in efforts to resolve the problem over the weekend.

Yours sincerely

Diana Johnson MP”

Diana Johnson MP said: “I wrote recently to Hull’s Council Leader protesting at his complacent response to the maladministration that hit 9,500 local residents.

“It was disappointing, if not surprising, to hear the Leader of the Council distorting the contents of this letter to him.

“I hope that releasing the letter in full puts the record straight regarding the opinions I have expressed about the lamentable Lib Dem handling of an error that is proving so costly for local taxpayers - far beyond those directly affected.”