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Involuntarily caught in housing benefit con
May 14, 2014 9:57 AM   Subscribe

I recently took over paying the UK council tax in a shared living arrangement. The house is HMO licensed for 5 people, yet large, so there has always been a sixth person living here off the books since way before I moved in. That 'HMO invisible' started a housing benefit application. I'm being asked to lie to the council on email. No way! But this idiot is a good friend. Help!

Our sixth person, let's call him P., happens to have been living here for many more years than anyone else, always off the council tax records.

Each housemate does some of the tasks - one pays electricity, another the internet,etc.
Two months ago when someone moved out I ended up with the job of paying the council tax. Someone else moved out so I emailed the city council advising them of one previous and one upcoming name change tbc. I stated 'Esmeralda V.' got replaced by 'Ophelia C.' and that we had 'Humperdinck F.' moving out very soon with the new flatmate name tbc. This was early May.

So today I found out said idiot friend attempted to claim housing benefit. Background - yes he is bona fide unemployed, chronically ill and would in principle qualify for housing benefit. At least his desperation is legit. But to think HMRC wouldn't cross check with the council tax register?
They immediately phoned him up and asked him why his name isn't on the register and he said he moved in last month. So then the same person found my as of yet unreplied-to email I'd sent which I mentioned earlier, and asked me to confirm who my friend has replaced in the property.

Now I find myself caught in the middle. My friend wants me to tell HMRC that he has replaced someone who just moved out last weekend (to a different country), instead of telling them the name of the person who moved in. So the new person would become the 'HMO invisible' person. Then desperate fool friend is going to try and get his friend the elderly landlord to confirm to the council he just moved in last month. Lastly, this is perhaps in my book the worst of it, he wants to keep the new person who just moved in in the dark about being council tax invisible.

First of all yes, I brought this on myself becoming good friends with this guy who I knew to be somewhat of poor judgement and No, I'm not asking for help how to lie on email to HMRC and mess around a stranger who just became a housemate.

My friend did say he wished he could just go back and cancel his housing benefit application at this point. So second of all, can he do that without his con becoming apparent?

The problem is that if I give the necessary honest reply to HRMC that they may very well end up opening a benefit fraud case against my friend. Which at this point - I wouldn't be on his side any more and that may be bad. I'm not sure how bad but my friend has already proven bad judgement by now, he is mentally ill and I am a little afraid - I probably should move out but this is more complex than there's space here to explain.

Sure, the easiest option would be to try not to get caught lying but why would I want to put myself in danger of becoming an asset to benefit fraud? Yes, due to all the people constantly moving in and out and complete incompetence of the city council it's always been such a huge mess that it probably would very well slip under the radar. Yes, my friend was in a major disaster as a child where most of his classmates are already dead from the aftereffects, he has supported me in verbal and in other more tangible ways through hardships (so what I'm saying is he has looked out for me), he is a survivor and legitimately desperate, but this can't mean I get into legal trouble for him. And there's still messing about the housemate which, not cool.

So, hivemind, any ideas how I manage this one while remaining legal, acting as a good housemate, and friend? P. has already caused the harm by stating his name so now one of the flatmates will have to become "not here" - or, will HMO kick us out? I'm stressed out about this.

Throwaway email - asongoficeandpoorjudgement @ Gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (11 answers total)
 
I'm really sorry but this is coming across as "yes there are all these reasons why my friend needs help and ways in which I could help him BUT BEHOLD MY RIGHTEOUS HONESTY!"

Your friend lives at your address. He is has a mental illness, is unemployed, is chronically ill, qualifies for housing benefit and is desperate. There is no benefit fraud if P registers at your address because he was not claiming housing benefit prior to this. All of you, however, have been complicit in fraud with this 'HMO invisible' scheme so there is no question of "remaining" legal and a little less high-mindedness is in order here.

The options seem to be that either P goes on the rolls and the new housemate doesn't, or you see if you can get the premises licensed for 6. Talk to the new housemate and see if they care about being registered for council tax.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:34 AM on May 14 [8 favorites]


Shove the council tax duty onto one of the other housemates and let them deal with it? Then you can claim innocence.

You definitely owe it to the new person who'd become invisible to tell them of this - I'd be mighty pissed off if it were me in that situation.

In addition to DarlingBri's options above, there is of course the third option of someone moving out so there are legitimately 5 people living on the premises.

PS you can also call HMRC and ask anonymously? They're generally nice and helpful!
posted by ClarissaWAM at 10:47 AM on May 14


Under the circumstances, do you guys have something like US Legal Aid, where you can talk to an actual attorney when you're low-income? Because I think that's what he needs, maybe what you all need. This may be a bit far gone, but I know in the US governmental agencies can be considerably more lenient with you when you volunteer information about what you've done wrong than they are when they've officially caught you. They don't really like catching people. This may be the one chance this person has to fix things. "All the arrangements were very complicated and we didn't realize we weren't in compliance, and once we did realize, we didn't know how to handle that, and we're very sorry and want to make orderly plans to fix everything." The "very sorry and orderly plans to fix everything" are usually the bit government agencies like most.

But in particular, I don't know your system, but I do think you need to look for either legal assistance or check to see if there's some sort of line you could call anonymously to ask about compliance and voluntary disclosure questions.

My experience is in taxation in the US, obviously, but I've just seen so many people go to great lengths to continue to avoid responsibilities, in ways that nearly ruin lives long-term, and all because they don't understand that the people who work for the government don't want them to be homeless, either, or in jail. Especially not disabled people, because a) it looks bad, and b) they're ordinary human beings with ordinary human empathy. There's almost always a way out, and it might not be too late, so don't assume your only two choices are either hanging your friend out to try or piling on another layer of deceptions.
posted by Sequence at 10:50 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]


So you have been okay with your flatmate previously paying the council tax lying on your behalf about the number of people in the flat, you were okay with yourself lying to the council about the number of people in your flat when you took over the council tax, but suddenly you are blaming your friend for this situation? I'd have a group meeting where everyone gets up to speed on the council tax situation and then get information from the Citizens Advice Bureau (Shelter can help with that) about the best way forward.
posted by saucysault at 11:11 AM on May 14 [2 favorites]


You've all already been lying.

Does the 6th person really reduce the rent that much??

Either someone else agrees to be undeclared , or someone moves out.

Did this new person know the house has one extra undeclared person? Are you all told up front about the situation prior to move in??

---

It's weird you are throwing your friend under the bus, when in fact, you're all complicit if you all know the deal.

You're being grossly unfair to this guy, especially since you are ALREADY lying about how many people live there! Geez!!

Suck it up, admit you are a part of the deceit, figure out a way to solve it and help your friend.
posted by jbenben at 11:15 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]


My experience is in taxation in the US, obviously, but I've just seen so many people go to great lengths to continue to avoid responsibilities, in ways that nearly ruin lives long-term

I realise you are trying to help but this isn't a US situation and neither the OP nor his housemates are going to have the rest of their lives ruined by under-payment of council tax. Furthermore, unless the OP lives under a rock, s/he knows s/he has access to both CAB and Shelter, neither of which are hidden resources the way they often are in the US.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:40 AM on May 14 [6 favorites]


Let the new person be invisible for awhile then you officially move out (become invisible) and they become official and visible? I mean, as others have said, it's not benefit fraud new or old going on, it's skimping on council tax that's been ongoing. And I assume this and most HMOs have a fair amount of turnover of residents.
posted by K.P. at 1:16 PM on May 14


Nobody really gets their lives ruined by underpayment of any kind of tax. They ruin their lives by freaking out about it, lying about it, hiding it from friends and significant others and roommates, making stupid financial or housing decisions because of the fear of this thing hanging over their heads. If those resources are available, then they're the place to go, rather than continuing to do things to cover this up, that's all I'm saying. You just get it out there and deal with it and then it's done; you don't kick it further down the line where it can create more stress for either you or others.
posted by Sequence at 2:07 PM on May 14 [2 favorites]


I may be missing something here, as no one else has raised this point. But: surely in a genuine HMO, it is the landlord who is liable for Council Tax, not the renters. If it is not a genuine HMO, then you are each individually liable for your own bill. You can check your actual property banding on voa.gov.uk. In either case, I can't see why one renter is liable for arranging payment of the entire bill(s) for the property?

And, what have HMRC got to do with it? Council Tax is billed by the local authority.

As said above, how can there be a benefit fraud here? Unless the claimant is trying to claim Housing Benefit when not actually liable for rent. The local authority are obliged to establish that rent is lawfully due before paying Housing Benefit, so there's obviously a problem if the claimant turns out not to be on the HMO licence.

The real legal issue might be you getting caught up in your landlord breaching his HMO licence?

So yes, a trip to an advice agency could clarify where you stand, if nothing else.
posted by wilko at 2:35 PM on May 14


I think some people are being a little mean to you. Most people would panic if they thought they were somehow going to be responsible for fraud and their name was on the declaration. You're clearly not aiming to get anyone in trouble, just to make the situation legit. Deep breath - you're not the first person in this situation and things will get resolved. Seconding contacting Shelter - this is their helpline number - and getting some advice on what the best next steps are.

If you really want things all above board then it might be better that the 6th person move out, rather than be "invisible". If the landlord has been knowingly getting rent for 6 people in a 5 bed HMO for years then I think his fraud is greater. It might be easier just to have everything straightened out all at once (though your rent will increase - think of it as the price of peace of mind) and then no more stress. Good luck!
posted by billiebee at 3:07 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]


This doesn't sound like a council tax problem. Council tax is based on the property and not on individuals. There is a discount for a single person living alone and the only "council tax invisible" situation I can think of is where two people live together and claim there is only one in the house. In the situation you describe the council only care that (if the house is actually one dwelling) they get paid. They don't care if this payment is divided amongst 5 people or 6 people

Instead this sounds like a housing regulations issue. Different local authorities have different regulations regarding how many people can live in houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), sometimes these regulations (such as fire escapes) require considerable expense on the part of landlords - who have an incentive to stay under the numbers. In a significant number of local authorities a usual cut off is between 5 (not many adaptations required) and 6 (fire doors etc).

Your solution - claim friend just moved in, add sixth person later - may not work for this reason. But it would allow your friend to get the benefits they are entitled too.

Your friend should seek advice from your local CAB, your house can get HMO advice from shelter.
posted by Gilgongo at 8:31 PM on May 14 [2 favorites]


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