Jonathan Werran 24 May 2013

Act now to support residents with tax debts, councils told

Local authorities must intervene now to help residents take early action to deal with council tax debts and only use bailiffs to recover monies owed as a last resort, Citizens Advice has warned.

According to the national charity, the number of people seeking advice on what to do when bailiffs chase local tax debts has almost tripled since the localisation of council tax benefit took effect on 1 April.

This April more than 20,000 people sought advice online on how to deal with bailiffs chasing council tax debts, compared with a mere 7,000 in April 2012.

Overall more than 37,000 people have sought help from the charity’s online advice pages, an increase of 87% compared with the same month last year.

Figures collated by the CAB across England and Wales reveal from April 2012 to March 2013, council tax debts accounted for around a third of the 60,652 cases involving bailiffs the bureaux dealt with, and there were 161,564 problems with council tax arrears.

Research published last month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed 2.4 million households will pay an average £138 more in council tax bills in 2013/14 – with around four fifths (78%) or some 1.98 million people affected by the reforms paying council tax for the first time.

Just under one fifth of councils (18%), some 58, have set up schemes that maintain current levels of support and 11% have devised schemes that will not affect all existing CTB claimants, the survey revealed.

‘We’re concerned that changes to council tax benefit will mean more people will end up in debt because they can’t pay their bill and have the bailiff knocking at their door,’ said Gillian Guy, chief executive for Citizens Advice.

‘The number of people worried about council tax is up 87% since the changes came in, and this will climb even higher as more people find it difficult to cope with the costs.

‘Bailiffs often overstate their powers, deliberately frighten debtors and charge extortionate fees. We want councils to help people get on top of their council tax debts so the use of bailiffs is no longer necessary,’ Ms Guy added.

In response, local government minister, Brandon Lewis, said: 'Councils have set up their own council tax support schemes and should have taken into account the impact on vulnerable people. For those facing genuine hardship, there are free advice services who can offer help and support, and many councils have put in place hardship funds to provide financial assistance to people in difficult circumstances.

'It is important that councils are sympathetic to those in genuine hardship, are proportionate in enforcement and do not overuse bailiffs. The Coalition Government has taken action to rein in aggressive bailiffs,' Mr Lewis added.

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