Forcing people to pay off their entire council tax bill if they miss one payment is pushing people into 'desperate' hardship, a charity has warned today.
New research from Citizens Advice has found that 90% of people with council tax debt also owe money on other household bills. On average, people with council tax debt only have £7 left each month after covering their living costs, with four in 10 having no money left at all to pay off debts.
The charity says that outdated government regulations are forcing council to use the courts and bailiffs to recover council tax debts. It found that missing an average council tax payment of £167 in the first month of the financial year can see a debt escalate to over £2,000 in just nine weeks.
A previous freedom of information request has shown that for every £1 of debt referred to bailiffs by councils, only 27p is ever returned to them.
'Government regulations push local authorities to use harsh collection processes.,' said Dame Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice. 'They pile rapidly-escalating debts on people who barely have enough money to get by.
'Many people who need our help with council tax arrears have no more than a few pounds spare every month to repay their debts. An unexpected bill for thousands of pounds, accompanied by legal threats and bailiff action, is terrifying for the person concerned and ineffective for the council trying to recover the debt.'
The call has been supported by the Local Government Association (LGA) who said councils should have more freedom to collect council tax debts in a more flexible way.
Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s Resources Board, said: 'As the Citizens Advice’s report makes clear, this needs to be supported by better guidance and funding. Councils would be in favour of it being made easier for them to recover money without having to use bailiffs, and would support the removal of the requirement for the entire annual sum to become payable if an instalment is missed.
'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.'