William Eichler 13 November 2019

Charity blasts ‘broken’ debt collection system

Local authorities have been criticised for using bailiffs to collect unpaid council tax from struggling households.

Citizens Advice has blasted what it describes as ‘outdated regulations’ governing the collection of council tax.

Currently, when people miss a single council tax payment they become liable for the full year’s bill. Councils are then forced by the rules to use the court process to collect arrears.

Citizens Advice argue that these rules make it difficult for councils to collect unpaid tax in a fair way and make it harder for people to get their finances back on track.

A Freedom of Information request made by the charity revealed that over the last five years, on average, bailiffs only collected 30% of the arrears they were sent.

Citizens Advice also calculated that due to the cost of bailiffs for every £1 referred to them for collection, councils received just 27p in return.

‘Council tax debt is now worryingly common but the collection system is broken,’ said Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice.

‘It doesn’t work for the people who are driven further into debt and it doesn’t work for councils or the taxpayer who are seeing millions of pounds go to waste each year.’

‘The next Government has a real opportunity to fix the outdated regulations that push councils to use ineffective collection practices and protect people from spiralling further into debt when they fall behind on their council tax,’ Ms Guy continued.

‘It must give councils the powers to take a more flexible approach to collecting arrears and put an end to punitive processes such as charging a full year’s bill after a single payment is missed.’

In response to Citizens Advice, Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board, said councils would be in favour of reforms that made it easier for them to recover money without having to go to the courts.

He also said local authorities would support the removal of the requirement for the entire annual sum to become payable if an instalment is missed.

‘Councils have a duty to their residents to collect taxes so important services, like caring for older and disabled people, protecting children, collecting bins and fixing roads are not affected,’ Cllr Watts said.

‘They strive to recover unpaid tax as sympathetically as possible and to provide support to households at risk of financial exclusion or hardship.’

‘Bailiffs should only ever be used as a last resort by councils. Before it gets to that stage, people will have been encouraged to apply for financial support by their council,’ he continued.

‘Anyone having trouble paying their council bills should get in touch with their local authority for financial help and advice as soon as possible.’

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