THE council has been forced to apologise to a charity trustee after he found an enforcement agent “standing in his kitchen” wrongly demanding he needed to pay thousands of pounds in unpaid business rates.

This came despite the trustee having no prior knowledge of the debt as the council had failed to properly contact him before recovery action was taken.

Wokingham Borough Council (WBC) received complaints from the man after he and his family suffered “great distress” from the confrontation.

Events leading up to the encounter began in December 2013 when the trustee’s charity bought a property in the borough and hoped to convert it to a place of worship.

WBC agreed to make the property exempt from business rates in 2014 while conversion work was ongoing and once the site was confirmed as a place of worship on 1 November 2016, the trust applied to be exempt from business rates.

But by April 2017 the council had issued bills for business rates as the trust’s application for exemption was still undecided, proceeding to send invoices to a different representative of the charity who had left the organisation and who no longer lived in the area.

As the former representative could not respond to the reminders, the council passed the £7,500 debt to enforcement agents in November 2017.

Agents were then given the address of the existing trustee after checks at the place of worship and at the other trustee’s former address proved unsuccessful.

However, by this point, the valuation office agency (VOA) had granted the organisation exemption from business rates and was therefore liable for only £60.

Despite this, the enforcement agent visited the trustee’s house, gained entry through an unlocked door and rang the man to demand he paid £8,612.67 in unpaid business rates.

The trustee and his father showed the agent evidence of the charity’s exemption from business rates but council officers still claimed the trustee was liable for the debt.

Having not received any correspondence relating to the supposedly unpaid business rates prior to being confronted by the enforcement agent, the first time the trustee became aware of the debt was when he received a call from the enforcement agent who was “standing in his kitchen”.

Complaints were made to the council on behalf of the family and the trust but WBC only replied to one of these matters.

The complainants then referred their issue to the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), which after considering the evidence, found fault with the council and demanded it apologised to the trustee and pay him £500 for the distress caused to him and his family.

Analysis from the LGO made clear the council’s decision to “proceed with enforcement agent recovery action” without the trustee’s awareness of the issue was “wrong”.

Further investigation found the trustee’s address was not given in connection with the charity’s contact details, meaning it was given from another data source.

Despite claiming this practice was “fault”, the LGO stopped short of outlining whether the council committed a data breach, as it claimed this was a matter for the Information Commissioner’s office to decide.

A Wokingham Borough Council spokesperson said: “Wokingham Borough Council fully accepts the Ombudsman’s report and apologises for any distress caused. We have reviewed our practices in this are to prevent a similar incident taking place again.”