Money advice experts have called for a change in the law to protect people from being locked up for council tax debts as an FoI request reveals over 4,800 people were threatened with imprisonment last year.
The free debt advice service PayPlan and the Institute of Money Advisers (IMA) are campaigning for an end to powers that allow courts to imprison householders for up to three months if they do not pay what they owe.
A freedom of information request revealed 99 out of 279 local authorities took court action for imprisonment against 4,817 people in 2016/17 – a rise of more than 10% compared to 2012/13.
Bradford Metropolitan Council was the worst offender. It launched court proceedings against 969 people, resulting in 18 being jailed. In second place, committing 14 people to prison, was the Vale of Glamorgan Council.
Alistair Chisholm, head of advice sector policy and partnerships at PayPlan, is urging councils to think twice about using such hard penalties against those already experiencing problems.
‘Court action and the threat of prison are deeply distressing for the most vulnerable householders, who believe they have been unfairly lumped together with criminals,’ he said.
‘Each day, our advisers speak to callers who find themselves in a difficult situation because of relationship breakdowns, illness or unemployment, or a combination of these factors.
‘In most cases, there is no lawful reason to jail someone – but even the threat can be very damaging. While the number of imprisonments has actually dropped since 2009/10, the threat of imprisonment is being more widely used.’
In response, Cllr Claire Kober, chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Resources Board, said: ‘Before councils take legal action, which is used as a last resort, people will have been encouraged to apply for monetary support and efforts will have been made to either attach the debt to a salary or arrange new payment plans.
‘Local Government is built on the simple principle that everyone who lives in a community should also contribute to it.
‘This means funding services that we all use through council tax, and it is not fair for the overwhelming majority of citizens that pay their council tax to let those who don’t pay their fair share continue to do so.’