Cambridge City Council Harassing Students for Council Tax

Cambridge City Council Council Tax Web Page

Given the importance of research students to the City of Cambridge it is astonishing that the City Council has recently increased the level of harassment to which they subject those working towards a PhD. The council is sending council tax bills to research students. This has been a problem for many years, but in the last few months the council has been sending an increasing number of individuals bills for council tax which they are not liable for and it has been refusing to cancel them when they are shown to be incorrect (Full time students are exempt from council tax).

I think it is appalling that the council is treating this group of people so badly, many of whom spend long hours working on research aimed at improving people’s lives and making the world a better place, for very little money. Non-payment of Council Tax is something which rarely, but regularly, people end up going to prison for. Higher education is becoming an important source of foreign exchange in the UK and if Cambridge City Council start taking action against students that could be placed at risk.

At a full council meeting on the 16th of July Cllr Bradnack (Labour) tabled a written question asking if the Liberal Democrat Executive Councillor responsible for council tax collection, Cllr Cantrill, was aware what was going on. The fact that council officers had apparently suddenly and inexplicably decided that PhDs take three years and they had determined that those taking longer are liable to council tax was highlighted to Cllr Cantrill. Cllr Cantrill failed to grasp the point being made to him. In responding he stated:

“It was our understanding that the duration of a PhD was three years, as reflected in the Council Tax certificates being issued to students via the University. ”

More than 90% of PhD students take longer than three years to complete a PhD, and many publicly funded research students now even get funding for four year courses and there are many four year PhD programs within Cambridge, and other, universities. Set against this background Cambridge City Council’s current practice of sending bills to full time research students beyond their third year of research is absurd and indefensible.

Rather than tackle the substantive and important point of those clearly undertaking full time research beyond their third year being charged council tax Cllr Cantrill’s reply at the July council meeting focused on other much more minor situations which are not the subject of major dispute. He reported the university and the council are arguing over an exemption being given for students after the point at which they have submitted a thesis and are awaiting a viva, at which point the council argue (and in some cases have a point) students are no longer engaged in full time study. Another situation he reported is under discussion is where a student has completed a viva but is awaiting the award of a degree. Allowing discussion of such circumstances distracted from the key problem that the council is determining that some of those who are engaged full time in working towards research degrees are liable for council tax. The only factor which matters is if the individual is a student engaged in full time research or study according to the legal definition. The legal definition is quite lax to account for those students across the country who are involved in far less intense work than that conducted by PhD students.

Cambridge City Council’s web page on student exemption clearly states students are exempt from council tax and defines a student as someone: “attending a university or college course that lasts an academic year or more, for a minimum of 24 weeks a year and 21 hours a week ”

In July a 60 day suspension of legal action against PhD students was announced. There was no update at the recent strategy and resources committee meeting held in October, the forum where Cllr Cantrill could have been held to account for his actions by “backbench” councillors.

Councils across the country regularly threaten graduate students in this way. Last year an Imperial College Student was taken to court, where the case was thrown out even though in that case the university refused to issue a certificate.

My Advice

I would suggest PhD students wrongly given council tax bills obtain a letter from their college and/or department stating that they are a full time student. Once in possession of such a “certificate” it is implausible in my view that a prosecution would either proceed or succeed.

Taking the letter in, in person, to the council’s offices and asking for a receipt / acknowledgement and an assurance that your council tax account has been updated to show the letter has been accepted is the route I took personally when I was in this situation quite a few years ago. In my case officers were unpleasant and stated they would disregard the letter and base their decision only the result of a communication directly with a college (my certificate was officially signed and stamped by my department), but did appear eventually to accept it. I have had a number of encounters with the city’s council tax officers, and have found they give terrible, incorrect, inconsistent, advice particularly on the phone. I have found them slightly better in-person at the council’s offices so would suggest that route.

Writing to those in a position to push for a change in the council’s stance might also be effective at solving this problem on a wider level:

  • Cllr Bradnack – Labour Opposition Councillor who has taken an interest in this. (Ben.Bradnack at
  • Cllr Howell – Conservative Opposition Councillor. (chris at

Writing to those responsible for the council’s current stance might at least make it less credible if they claim ignorance of what their officers are up to:

  • Cllr Nimmo-Smith – Liberal Democrat Leader of the Council (ian at
  • Cllr Cantrill – Liberal Democrat Executive Councillor responsible for Council Tax (rcantrill at

Other suggestions include writing to the Cambridge News (newsdesk at and attending the full council meeting on the 22nd of October 2009 and put the case to councillors directly. (Members of the public have an opportunity to address the council at the beginning of the meeting). Those affected could also try and lobby CUSU or GU representatives to speak. I would also be prepared to speak on behalf of anyone who would like me to.

I understand independent councillor, John Hipkin, is planning to ask a question on this subject during the full council meeting.

If the council does not back down, I would suggest offering to pay the bill, making the offer in the form of a cheque sent along with a formal “letter before action” making clear your intent to immediately seek repayment of the money via the county court if Cambridge City Council pays in the cheque. The legal system insists that you are actually owed money before you can take a county court action. I would suggest that taking county court action against the council for the return of your money would be preferable to being taken to the Magistrate’s court for non-payment of council tax by the council. The county court option puts the student in control and ensures there is no risk of you being sent to prison (I’ve seen some crazy decisions by Cambridge’s Magistrates).

Strengthening Students’ Unions

The longer term solutions in my view include strengthening students’ unions in Cambridge. Within Cambridge University there is too much focus on the individual and no emphasis placed on solving systemic problems, such as this, which affect large groups of students. Attempts to pursue broader change, other than for personal benefit, are met with suspicion and incomprehension. When I applied to be an external member of the university council I placed democracy, and strengthening students’ unions very high on my list of things I thought needed to change.

Paying PhD Researchers a Salary

An idea I am sympathetic towards is paying publically funded PhD researchers in the UK a salary, and not classing them as students. This may go some way towards improving society’s view of those working towards PhDs. While it would result in money going round in circles due to council tax and income tax I think there would be many benefits. Individuals would be protected by employment law (and other benefits extended to institutional staff) and would find it easier to rent or gain a mortgage on property. I think attitudes towards individuals from both inside and outside academia would improve and the UK taxpayer would get more for their money.

Other Ways Cambridge City Council Liberal Democrats Treat Students and Other House Sharers Badly

  • Introducing and expanding “conservation areas” which result in students and shared houses being pushed out of desirable areas. (This is one of a range of policies the Liberal Democrats pursue which appeared to be aimed at dividing the city).
  • Failing to enforce basic standards for housing quality (which it requires for social housing) in university accommodation even when it is inhabited year-round by graduate students or staff.
  • Convoluted and unpublicised systems for obtaining discounts at swimming pools
  • Making landlords, rather than tenants, liable for council tax in situations where the Local Government Finance Act does not permit them to do so. I believe this is being done to improve the headline percentage rate of council tax collection but has no effect on the actual amount collected and disenfranchises those who no-longer receive council tax bills or other communications and information sent only to those who receive council tax bills. (Students with an exemption ought receive a “bill” showing the exemption has been applied.)

41 responses to “Cambridge City Council Harassing Students for Council Tax”

  1. Richard

    I don’t think there is an argument about student exemption, the argument is, when does someone cease to be a student. In the definitions of the colleges, presumably it is whilst they are paying fees as a student. Most PhD students who hang on after the end of their formal period of study (usually to write up their thesis – something especially common amongst scientists) are no longer paying fees, so are no longer officially students. The colleges themselves are usually quick enough to tell them to get out of any “student” accommodation they may be occupying, so it can be used by new, fee-paying students. Presumably, the Council would be acting unreasonably if it gave exemptions from tax to those who are not entitled to them (as well as penalising other council tax-payers).

    I am not sure how long you think someone who has finished their period of study is still “attending a course” in the definition you cite. Does the time allowed to write up a thesis extend indefinitely? If not, when does it come to an end and who makes that judgement?

    If a college is prepared to issue a student certificate, then presumably the person is exempt. If the colleges are not prepared to issue such certificates, as I suspect, then the argument is between the student and the college, not the Council (although I was interested in the Imperial College case).

    Of course, any student liable for council tax without an income might be entitled to benefit to help pay for this. (Except of course for foreign students, who are not eligible for benefit).

  2. David,

    *The council is ignoring certificates issued by the university(ies?). It has been awkward about accepting them for years and now it has stepped this up.

    *As I made clear this is not only about edge cases such as those who are writing up a thesis. The council’s action is being taken against all who have spent more than three years as graduate students in Cambridge, including those on four year programmes, and people working within the university on a daily basis. Many of those affected will be working on low, or no, pay. Most will be working hours far in excess (easily 4x or more) of the minimum requirement for meeting the student definition.

    *A PhD is not a course, and does not involve a “period of study”, the definition is defective in this sense.

  3. Dear Richard, I’m gratified that some (non-student) has taken note of this issue – I’ve had a tortuous few months trying to write my thesis whilst battling court summons from the Council (summons which I was promised wouldn’t be sent, but that’s a private error from the Council).

    I feel I ought to amend your recommendations to PhD students: I have taken – in person – letters from my supervisor (a Professor), Head of Department and College to the council explaining my status as a research student, all of which have been rejected. The only letter which was acknowledged as being valid was one from the Board of Graduate Studies – people who all Ph.Ds will be very familiar with and have been very helpful. After explaining the issue to the board, they provided a (rather pretty) formal student status letter which the Council then covered in rubber stamps.

    I hope that’s of use to someone!


  4. David, presumably anyone who is registered with BOGS should still be considered a student. Unless things have changed since I went through the system, after three years you had to write to BOGS periodically to justify why your studies were still ongoing (often including a request for the waivering of fees). I don’t see that it should be that hard for the city council to cross reference with the list of registered students (or confirmation from BOGS of being one).

    And what is this “formal period of study” for Ph.D. students you mention?
    I wasn’t aware of there being many (any?) taught three year postgrad courses in town. Completion is therefore defined by getting enough material to write up and this can very easily run over.

    Also, bear in mind that most Ph.D’s do not continue to get paid if they run over the three or four years their stipend lasts. You seem to be advocating stinging these guys for Council tax too — as though the pressures of finishing a Ph.D. weren’t enough already.

  5. This is part of the City Council’s wider campaign of maximising revenue from Council Tax by taking as many people to court as possible, safe in the knowledge that they can settle disputes at the last minute outside the court room without becoming liable for the costs and inconvenience of the person who has received the summons.

    When I once forgot to pay my council tax I received an automated summons and was so disgusted at the £68 of costs added onto the bill that I went to court to defend myself.

    I was shocked to see the Council make £130,000 from out of 2,000 City residents in just one day by using this practice. This was highlighted in the Cambridge News at the time:

    At least PhD students can fight back and avoid paying council tax and the £68 surcharge. For anybody else who falls behind on their payments or simply forgets to pay, there is no argument and no defence against the heavy-handed Council.

  6. Can I start by saying that as far as I am aware students (or student households) are liable for Council Tax and it is quite right that they should receive a bill. (Richard is wrong when he suggests that sending our such bills is somehow vindictive). It is then for the individual student to “prove” their student status, and claim exemption from paying, something in which their colleges or universities or other establishments are legally bound to help them, by providing a certificate or some other form of proof of their status. Unfortunately, the legislation specifically refers to students “attending a course” which is why research students meet with problems. Presumably this problem nay be compounded if the research student is also teaching or supervising part-time (do they still do that?). Most of the Cambridge colleges seem to regard the student period for a postgraduate as being defined by a period for which the student pays fees. As you all say, many postgraduate students continue with their work beyond such a period. However, it must seem debatable whether at that time they are still legally students in the definitions set out in the legislation. If the legislaion needs re-writing surely that is for parliament, not the City Council. The Council is duty bound to collect the tax, and also to consider each case claiming exemption on its merits. Presumably the positive advice given above is that the BOGS can provide something confirming the status of a research student that seems to be acceptable to the City Council. I fully agree the Council can be overly zealous in pursuing Council Tax, as well as in pursuing parking fines and overpayments of benefit. I am told that it faces penalties from central government if it fails to collect certain proportions of these amounts within certain periods. which may be part of the problem.

  7. David Vincent,

    I agree that the council ought send bills to student households from which they have not received “certificates”. I have not made any suggestion that this should not happen. It is not the case that students are liable until they prove to the council’s satisfaction they are not. However in practice I don’t have a problem with the council working to a system which effectively makes this assumption.

    What has recently been occurring is the council has been ignoring evidence presented to them that individuals are students. In some cases bills (and even court summonses) are not being cancelled and in others certificates are being ignored because they show students studying beyond their third year.

    What is motivating the council officers is something I have asked at the North Area committee before and hope is addressed during Thursday evening’s meeting. I have spoken against what I believe is the Liberal Democrats chasing the headline figure of the percentage of council tax collected at the expense of students and others renting shared property in the City. The council should simply recognise the make up of the housing stock in the City means that it will have a slightly lower than average headline collection rate.

    We need clear political leadership from Cllrs Cantrill, Nimmo-Smith et al.

  8. I attended Cambridge City Council’s full council meeting on the 22nd of October 2009. As no one else was present to ask a public question on the council pursuing PhD researchers for council tax despite them being exempt I decided I would ask.

    I introduced myself as a resident of the city, speaking on my own behalf and explained I am not personally affected by the situation now, but have experienced the council’s attitude to research students with respect to council tax myself in the past. I said the reason I was asking a public question (despite knowing questions were tabled) were to try and get the matter debated early on, while councillors were still alert and awake and while the press were still present. [City Council meetings often go on to midnight, typically press and some councillors don’t return for the section of the meeting held after the councillors’ buffet dinner which is held at around 8pm]

    I said that this had been a problem for years, but that recently the council had not backed down when presented with valid certificates showing that individuals are in-fact students. I referred to Cllr Cantrill’s response given at the last council which he stated he thought PhDs took three years. I asked if he had changed his view. I stressed that despite Cllr Cantrill’s previous reply focusing on edge cases such as those writing-up this was not about such cases; it was about everyone going over a third year of course – over 90% of PhD students in the city. [That’s a separate issue which I think needs tackling!].

    I asked if when issuing summonses the council seriously intended pursing students to court, and eventually to the point where students might go to prison. I said if they were not then their actions amounted to bullying and harassment. I asked what political leadership and direction Cllr Cantrill had given the council officers who collect council tax. Had he instructed them improve the headline collection rate at all costs – without consideration being given to the make-up of the city. I asked Cllr Cantrill if he would ensure the council issued clear guidance to students and would in-future accept valid certificates showing student status.

    Cllr Cantrill refused to reply. He said he will address the matter when the oral question (tabled by Cllr Ward) which asks: “Why do the council and university not appear to be able to agree on how to recognise what is and what isn’t a graduate student?” is reached.

    Cllrs heckled – pointing out that the council’s procedure gives no assurance that that the oral question will in-fact be reached. It is tabled as question 8, and only 30 minutes are given to all oral questions. (I am writing this before the council reaches oral questions).

    Cllr Hipkin had submitted a written question to the full council meeting on the 22nd of October 2009. His question and its response have not yet been published online by the council. I am at the council meeting and have obtained a hard copy, which I have transcribed below:

    Cllr Hipkin’s written question:

    Would the Executive Councillor for Customer Services and Resources provide an update on how discussions are proceeding between the University and the City Council on the question of allowing council tax exemption for PhD students undertaking a fourth year of study.

    Response: After extensive discussions between Cambridge City Council Officers and senior representatives from the University and Colleges the Authority has agreed to extending student status of those Ph.D. students studying into their fourth year, but no further. The only exceptions to this rule would be where the student has experienced exceptional circumstances, such as:

    • Having to intermit due to, for example, illness; or
    • Science-based students who have experienced critical equipment failure, resulting in an unavoidable extension of their research

    Having discussed this at some considerable length with both University and College representatives, we, the Authority, believe that this proposal in relation to students carrying out studies beyond three years is fair, equitable, and within the spirit of the legislation.

    This means that we will treat Ph.D students as qualifying students and therefore “disregarded” for the purposes of Council Tax.

    This is a step forward, but quite why the council can’t just accept certificates issued by the university(ies) I can’t understand. There is also no assurance that either those who have wrongly paid money will be refunded or that summonses sent will be cancelled.

    If the council want to limit this exemption to those in their first four years of research they should lobby the city’s MP and seek a change in the law.

  9. A further written question asked by Cllr Herbert (Leader of the Labour Opposition) states:
    “How many fourth year postgraduate students are asking for a 2009/10 council tax reduction which the council is contesting, and what is being done to resolve this issue and end the worry this is causing many students across the city?”.

    The answer from Cllr Cantrill, states:

    Of at least 8,200 students that may be exempt/disregarded for Council Tax purposes approximately 60 postgraduate students have made enquiries in relation to their status. Now that we have established a way forward in the way in which we will classify Ph.D. students studying into a fourth year, we intend to write to them confirming their status and making the necessary adjustments to their Council Tax accounts.

    Those students that meet the criteria [see above] will be disregarded for the purposes of Council Tax. We expect that the vast majority of those that have already contacted us to fall within the disregard status.

  10. I think the council’s position, while better than it was, is still indefensible. The council is deciding to set a policy at odds with the law. It presumably still intends to pursue full time students who are exempt from council tax to court.

    I think the council should follow the law with respect to council tax liability and not create its own “gold-plated” policies. All those who meet the legal requirement for an exemption should have their bills cancelled.

    While only 60 students may have contacted the council; many many more will be affected. His answer is highly misleading in this regard.

    The claim that only 8,200 students in the city are exempt/disregarded from council tax is bizarre as there are many more full time students than that in the city and all are exempt from council tax.

  11. Cllr Ward’s tabled oral question was not reached, thirty minutes are allocated to oral questions. His question was listed as number eight, it said:
    “Why do the council and university not appear to be able to agree on how to recognise what is and what isn’t a graduate student?”

    As Cllr Cantrill had said he would address my public question at this point he never did address it. I think not answering a public question asked at a full council is unprecedented and arrogant.

    Sometimes the mayor asks executive councillors to write to councillors who have asked oral questions which have not been reached to provide written responses. He did not do this at during the October council meeting.

    It is awful that a matter raised in a tabled oral question, two written questions, and a public question did not get addressed at all during the council meeting.

  12. Following the meeting I wrote to the chair:

    Cllr McPherson,

    I am writing to make a couple of comments and suggestions relating to your charing of yesterday’s full council meeting.

    * Previously I have observed council meetings where dealing with oral questions reaches the 30 minute time limit with tabled questions still left to be answered and the chair has asked executive councillors to respond by email to those who have asked the questions.

    – I note that yesterday, with ten outstanding questions, you failed to give this direction. Are you able to do anything in retrospect about that and make sure you do it in the future?
    – Even when written responses to the outstanding oral questions are produced, they are not proactively published by the council. I have in the past made an FOI request to access them. I am writing to you to ask you to join me in lobbying for answers given at the meeting to be minuted (they are not) and for answers given in writing afterwards to be published.

    * As when I asked a public question I was told it would be addressed when the related oral question was reached I was disappointed when you stopped the oral questions before that point was reached. Could you not have used some of the remaining public question time to allow Cllr Cantrill the opportunity to answer both my and Cllr Ward’s questions on the council’s approach to pursing graduate students for council tax? I don’t think the written answers on the subject addressed all the points raised. Neither Cllr Ward or I got our opportunities to respond to Cllr Cantrill’s replies as he never did substantively reply in person.

    I hope you can see these as reasonable and constructive suggestions.


  13. I have also written to Cllr Ward asking him to pass on any reply he receives to his question.

    When writing to Cllr Ward I said:
    “I think it is worth pursuing Cllr Cantrill for an explanation as to why, under his leadership, the council is making up its own rules on council tax liability and not simply following the law.

    It is not only with respect to research students that the council takes a position at odds with the legislation; as I have raised a number of times at the North Area committee the council wrongly makes landlords rather than tenants liable for council tax in shared houses.

    I think my question of what political direction has been given to the council’s council tax collection officers was a reasonable one which ought be answered. Have they been instructed to improve the headline collection percentage at all costs, with no regard to the relatively unusual make up of the city’s housing which given its large proportion of students and house sharers which may well, quite legitimately, affect that figure [making it appear to be poor with respect to national averages].”

  14. Cllr Ward has responded:

    From: "Tim Ward" 
    Date: 23 October 2009 10:36:48 BST
    To: "'Richard Taylor'" 
    Subject: RE: Council Tax Questions at Full Council
    >I think my question of what political direction 
    >has been given to the council's council tax 
    >collection officers was a  reasonable one which >ought be answered.
    I can give you a face-to-face spoken answer to that but I'm not going to 
    write anything down.
    Tim Ward
    Brett Ward Limited -  
  15. I spoke to the leader of the council, Cllr Nimmo-Smith on Friday.

    *He said he did not think any of the students the council were pursuing to the courts were in the wrong. [I asked him why, in that case, he didn’t put a stop to what was happening; he had no answer to that].

    *He defended the council’s stance of making up its own rules on council tax liability for students; saying the law was too vague and changed too often. He said he had made the city’s MP, David Howarth aware of the council’s view and new stance.

    *He stated that there was no link between pursing graduate students and the headline collection rate figure.

    *He said there he and his colleagues had given no political leadership / direction to the council tax officers to prompt the recent events.

    *He was not receptive to my suggestion that the council should not create its own rules on council tax liability. He argued that as the council collects tax to pass on to central government, central government, specifically the DWP, would pursue the council for losses if it did not collect the money owed. He said the council’s rules were aimed at preventing such a claim from central government arising.

  16. Cllr Rosenstiel has sent me a Lib Dem press release on this subject:

    Embargo: Immediate
    October 24, 2009


    • Cambridge City Council has reassured 4th year Ph.D. students in the city that they will continue to be treated as full-time students for the purposes of Council Tax. This means that they will continue to receive either a discount or exemption from the Council Tax

    • In addition, the council has emphasised that it will continue to look at students whose period of study exceeds the four years due to exceptional circumstances (such as illness)

    • The council’s initial position arose as a result of some uncertainties, which had recently arisen, regarding the eligibility of 4th year graduate students.

    • Council officers entered into discussions with the University of Cambridge and the Colleges earlier in the year to try to agree a common understanding of the criteria in relation to these students, which were initially unsuccessful. Agreement has now been reached with the University on the eligibility of such students.

    • The council now intends to contact students explaining the position

    Coun Rod Cantrill, Executive City Councillor for Customer Services and Resources, commented:

    “The City Council has a legal obligation and a duty to the tax paying residents of Cambridge to ensure that only people who are eligible are exempted from council tax.

    The council also recognises that Cambridge is a leading centre of learning and the importance of this to the local economy

    I know that the issue has caused undue concern and stress for students. I welcome the council’s prompt action to clarify the position. I hope that this step will have the support of the universities and colleges in the city”


    My view of this is that the use of “continue to…” is astoundingly cynical; it completely fails to accept there has been a problem, that the council got it wrong, and has only very belatedly, after having had its attention draw to the problem in July changed its mind in mid-October. To describe the action the council has taken as “prompt” is simply false.

  17. Richard

    It is interesting that you think the Liberal Democrats are acting against the interests of students in a general sense. That would seem odd, given the proportion of the electorate made up by students. In fact, it is generally odd that such a high proportion of the local electorate (I assume at least 25%) is made up of relatively short-term residents who consume local services but – as you have been pointing out – do not pay for them. (Even if they paid for them via Council Tax Benefit, given the low incomes of many of them, there would presumably be a greater benefit to the Council’s coffers). Do you not think there is something of a “democratic deficit” here?

  18. David,

    It’s difficult to say whether the Lib Dems are acting for or against anyone if they fail to give answers to legitimate questions.

  19. I am confused as to why the council needs to be engaged to determine whether an extension in submitting the degree is justified. If you are still registered as a student – surely this is enough.

    Unfortunately, I am just starting my 5th year of my PhD, though finishing soon.
    As a foreign student, I am not entitled to work, nor council tax relief for a low income (obviously). To me, this would seem an exceptional case.

    Interestingly, yesterday I just received a letter dated early Oct, along with my council tax bill dated the 20th (though clearly sent later), saying post 3rd year research students are liable.
    Not sure why they waited to send it out, especially in light of the new decision.

  20. Cllr McPherson has replied in detail. He has said:

    “Answers to oral question put at the meeting will, from now on form part of the main meeting and as such will be minuted. ”

    It was a surprise to me that answers to oral questions didn’t form part of the “main meeting” in his view.

  21. I have been provided a copy of the judgement in the case of the Imperial student denied an exemption when he was writing up. The judgement includes highlighting, I believe by Cambridge City Council, indicating the elements which are thought to have wider implications.

    One of the key elements in the judgement is:

    I am wholly satisfied that sub-paragraph (b) means that the College must normally
    require attendance of students on the material course at some identified place. Since, as
    Mr Fayad rightly concedes, he was not required to attend at a particular place when
    writing up his thesis, he is not, for the very special purposes of these provisions, to be
    regarded as engaged in a full-time course of education, and therefore cannot benefit
    from the discount arrangements.

    However many research students, particularly in subjects such as History or English very rarely have to attend at a “particular place”.

  22. I have written to Cambridge’s MP David Howarth:

    Dear Mr Howarth,

    I am writing to draw your attention to the fact that last week Cambridge City Council decided to invent its own rules on council tax liability for research students. I hope you will agree with me that bodies such as the Cambridge City Council shouldn’t be creating their own rules on council tax liability, but the position should be made clear and consistent at a national level.

    I understand, having spoken to the council leader Ian Nimmo-Smith, that the council considers it has been left with no choice but to invent its own rules this as a result of a lack of clarity in the legal position. The current problems have arisen as a result of a number of legal judgements which have, while struggling to make sense of poorly drafted regulations, just made the position more confused.

    I believe the easiest way of solving the current problem would be to update the The Council Tax (Discount Disregards) Order 1992 to make it clearer that the exemption from council tax applies to research students. Are you able to do anything to seek such an order? The fact councils and judges find it difficult to work with the current position clearly shows it is needed.

    The council’s new rules can be seen in the written answers provided at last week’s full council meeting:

    The council claims to be, in part, simply taking belated action following a judgement which states “the College must normally require attendance of students on the material course at some identified place”. If the council chose that element to base its new rules on it would be preventing many research students in Cambridge, particularly those working in subjects other than those which involve laboratory work, from gaining an exemption from council tax. [There is no element of the judgement which directly corresponds with the council’s new 4 year limit.] I have placed a copy of the judgement on my website at:


  23. Writing on the newsgroup cam.misc Liberal Democrat Cllr Ward has joined me in criticising Liberal Democrat Executive Councillor Rod Cantrill for making up his own rules:

    Cllr Ward wrote:

    The “fourth year is OK, fifth year isn’t” compromise sounds like a ludicrous fudge to me.

    It’s a pity Cllr Ward didn’t come to this view earlier; I hope he will be lobbying his fellow ruling Liberal Democrats to try and get them to change their view too.

  24. Cllr Cantrill’s answer to Cllr Ward’s question which was tabled, but not answered, at the full council has been passed to me by a few people today.

    It appears Cllr Cantrill is slightly relaxing the stance he is taking against post-fourth year students:

    The council intends to contact students effected [sic] to indicate that all 4th year graduate students will be exempt or receive a discount from council tax and to emphasise that the authority will continue as it has always done to look at exceptional cases where a student’s course may go beyond the 4th year.

    For comparison his previous response, which specifically limited exceptional cases to illness and scientific equipment failure, can be found in comment 8. The “as it has always done” line, is like much of the content of the press release, a cynical and scurrilous attempt to rewrite the history of this situation. In the press release he wrote: “I welcome the council’s prompt action to clarify the position” apparantly trying to distance himself from the council’s actions which he is responsible for.

    Cllr Cantrill doesn’t appear to have grasped the problem is with research students, not those on courses; he’s making painfully slow progress, but at least it’s in the right direction.

  25. The main problem still remains that the legislation as written does not appear to exempt research students from Council Tax. (In fact, I am not entirely sure that as written it exempts undergraduates in some arts subjects).

  26. Good point – there seems to be many people stuck in perpetual studentdom, writing their thesis,etc, while also earning a decent wage from employment. Should they be exempt from it (if they are technically still students)

  27. It appears the council are now targeting 4th year undergraduates:

    This is astounding, and shocking.

    There is a West/Central Area committee meeting at 19.30 on the 10th of December at the Castle End Mission, Pound Hill, Cambridge, CB3 0AE The meeting includes an open forum for members of the public to speak and would be an appriopriate place to go to ask the Liberal Democrat councillors what they’re up to.

  28. Richard

    Whilst idly flicking through another part of this site, I came across the following comment of yours from 11 September 2008 “I wonder if he was referring to PostDocs, and suggesting they “study”, I imagine most would be insulted by that insinuation, its bad enough calling those doing research intended to result in a PhD students!”.

    If you don’t think they are – or should be called – students, why should the Council be expected to treat them as such for Council Tax purposes?

    Just a thought.

  29. David,

    Clearly I don’t think post-doctoral researchers should be exempt from council tax.

    An exemption from council tax is part of the current way the state funds those working towards a PhD. What I am objecting to is an individual council making up its own rules on council tax eligibility. I’m not defending the current arrangements.

    I have previously outlined my view that it would be better if those funded by the UK state to work towards a PhD were given a salary, rather than a studentship, they would be in a better position with regards to:
    *Employment law
    *Status (resulting in training opportunities offered to staff).
    *Accommodation (availability of both rental property and mortgages)

    As a result I think the UK taxpayer would get a better return on their investment. I would want the salary set to be at such a level as to result in the same after-tax take-home pay as offered by current studentships.

  30. I’m being pursued by the Council for payment of tax during the period I was a graduate student. They had been informed repeatedly of this and, following the involvement of my MP, had largely seemed to relent. Since I’ve left Cambridge City and notified them I had moved they seem to have sent letters to the property where I no longer lived, summoning me to court and obtained a judgement for 1000 pounds with costs in my absence; I’ve just discovered this through an e-mail from my previous landlord but I haven’t received the paperwork yet.

    The council, despite proof of my registration as a full-time student and awareness of extenuating circumstances including illness, has disputed my student status on the grounds of my being past my 4th year.

    I’m not clear that there’s anything I can do but pay up on this one, aside from anything else they have consumed enough of my time and caused me so much stress that I’m not sure I can cope with disputing it any longer. 1000 pounds is a lot of money but it’s cheap for my health and peace of mind. At the end of the day, the council have the resources and the will to run me into the ground if I don’t submit.

    I just wanted to let you know that the Council haven’t changed their stance on ignoring national law and the University’s own certificates. I have been in communication with my MP and the CAB but I don’t hold out much hope anymore.

  31. It is excellent that David Feller took this to court.

    That he won his case is no surprise to me.

    If the Liberal Democrats responsible feel any accountability for their actions they ought resign. At the very least those directly involved, Cllrs Nimmo-Smith, Cantrill, McGovern and Reid should stand down and apologise.

    As I reported in Comment 15 Cllr Nimmo-Smith at least knew he was doing wrong and he told me he didn’t think any of those he pursued through the courts had done anything wrong.

  32. The council have now moved from trying to get money off PHD students, to students doing 4 year courses.

    I am doing a 4 year course, at the beginning of the tax year I got a letter saying I was exempt for the whole year as I was a student. At the beginning of this month, right in the middle of exam term, I got a revised bill where the exemption ends the day after my third year grades get published.

    They claim, my couse is a bachelors course with a seperate masters section and that the gap between my 3rd and 4th year course is taxable. This goes against all other government agencies and the university where it is all viewed as a single course.

    I don’t graduate after this year, or get a degree, I get everything at the end of the fourth year, but they are still trying to claim I am not a student for all of 3 months!!!

  33. I have been meaning to pull out a written question and answer from the April 2011 Council Meeting.

    3. Cllr Herbert to the Executive Councillor for Customer Services and Resources

    3a) What are the financial implications for the Council following the Council’s defeat in the Courts over its efforts to charge 4th year PhD students Council tax?

    The High Court ruling was against a decision made by the Valuation Tribunal for England.
    The Valuation Tribunal found in favour of the Council’s interpretation of the requirements for ‘attendance’, which was supported by a previous court of appeal decision R (Fayad) v London South East Valuation Admin court of appeal 2008.

    The appeal hearing was in relation to the interpretation of‘attendance’at a particular place.

    The High Court was of the view that the Valuation Tribunal erred in Law and that the Council Tax disregard should have been allowed.

    3b) How much in repayments will the Council be making?

    The Council is only required to pay the Court Costs,which are estimated to be £10,060.00.

    Where there maybe a requirement to reimburse any students affected by this decision, it will be via an adjustment to a current or past Council Tax liability, which may necessitate a refund.
    • It is estimated that only a small number may actually be affected by the ruling.

    3c) Will the Council now communicate the position clearly to all colleges and
    students organisations in the city?

    With effect from 13 May 2011, the Government has amended the definition of a person undertaking a full-time course of education so that the requirement for attendance in relation to a full-time course is replaced by a requirement to undertake such a course.

    The Council is studying the judgement carefully and the change in the legislation, and following internal legal advice will be amending current processes and guidelines appertaining to the establishment of student status.

    New guidance will be forwarded onto the University Board of Graduate Studies and also placed on the Council’s website

    Source – Written Q&A PDF, April 2011 Full Council

    I think it is astonishing that the council has not proactivley issued refunds to those who paid up in response to the councils erroneous demands.

    I think the government’s amendment to the definition of a student is a slight improvement, but they’ve still not got it right eg. the situation for research students has not really been clarified.

    The amendment to the law was via the :
    The Council Tax (Discount Disregards) (Amendment) Order 2011

  34. Andrew has been in touch with me by email to say the council has told him it will take about 2 weeks for them to decide if he is still a student or not.

  35. Andrew has let me know the council has given him his student exemption back; noting though that the escapade shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

  36. I was most interested to read this article and the comments alongside.
    I am not a PHD student but on a Full time BA/ Fine Art at Wimbledon. The council are adamant that I must pay Council Tax during the school holidays claiming that students are no longer students during that period, which I believe is untrue. It’s not as if I can claim benefits and have no income from a paid job as yet. I’ve been sent an £800 demand, for the yr ahead which I am told, I must pay up front, then claim a rebate. They act as if they don’t know you can only apply for a council tax exemption, at the commencement of the new Uni term/yr in Sept via the University form.
    In addition to that, I ‘owe’ £150 to the Council Tax Bailiffs/Equita, and £100 arrears to Council tax from when I was claiming benefits in 2013. The Welfare Reforms came in, and after Bedroom Tax, I was left with £53 to live on. I simply couldn’t afford to pay or could not eat. For the next mnths the council Tax bill escalated between £700- 300, inexplicably. This may seem a relatively small amount but after, my rent I’m left with only £74 Student Grant/loan to live on, travel and pay for equipment and struggle to pay bills. So far the Council Tax in lambeth have refused point blank to allow me to pay in installments, or take hardship in to account which apparently doesn’t necessarily count if you don’t have adequate funds coming in, but only according to their own criteria. The Council Tax really is inflexible and the advisors inundate you with misinformation, plus it is criminal surely to place such an extortionate levy on those who simply can’t afford to pay it. To any sentient person’s mind unlawful to bring in the bailiffs, ever escalating the fee. To deal with the Council Tax is a constant- a never ending treadmill. It used to be that on the basis of ones income an arrangement could negotiated- not that those living in poverty/trying to study on a pittance in order to get somewhere and be a valuable member of society should have to pay it at all. Not now, it’s in 100% draconian, and it seems there is no appeal procedures, and those means that ostensibly can offer the customer some portion of a discount, are utterly bogus and a facade. At the moment I’m at my wits ends what to do. Even if I secure work this summer, I have huge utility bills to pay, surely as paramount (should be), compared to council tax, and don’t get me started on the scandalous discrepancies between the rich and poor and well heeled, grossly overpaid MP’s who proportionately pay bugger all, on the account of Council Tax. Once again, it is simply wrong ans unfeasible for the Council Tax to make demands in the hundreds to those who they know outright simply do not earn that; rather live on a frugal allowance.

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