Government and councils criticised for 'aggressive' debt collection behaviour

PA

Some of the most aggressive debt collection behaviour experienced by people who owe money comes from the state, a charity claims.

Christians Against Poverty (CAP) said that while the practices of private companies have improved and become more customer-focused, some of the most aggressive debt collection behaviour taking place is on behalf of local and national government.

Its Powerless People report said those facing multiple debts, such as for council tax and benefit overpayments, can feel completely overwhelmed, confused and frightened.

It wants to see a breathing space scheme, to give people relief from local and central government debt collection as well as in the private sector.

"While we're happy to have seen improvement in some of the private sector's debt collecting practices, it is totally unacceptable that some of the most aggressive debt collecting behaviour in our nation comes from the hands of both local and national governments," said CAP's chief executive Matt Barlow.

"The reality is, people on the receiving end can feel completely overwhelmed and unable to cope and our findings show they are not given sufficient avenues of understanding or support.

"Many have no idea why they owe what they owe and that's both confusing and frightening."

The charity said nearly half (49%) of the people helped with problem debt by CAP have owed money to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or their local authority.

It said these clients were more likely to be on a low income and nearly two-fifths (37%) were lone parents.

They were also more likely to report having mental ill health, the research found.

Its report, which surveyed more than 1,000 CAP clients, said the speed, rigidity and inconsistency of debt collection practices creates fear, "leaving clients powerless and debts unmanageable".

On average, people helped by CAP have 11 different debts when seeking help.

The report claimed multiple debts owed to government creditors can be particularly problematic.

Of those who owed money to government bodies, 69% had skipped meals due to debt, 77% said debt had made them ill and 93% had suffered sleepless nights.

Mr Barlow continued: "We've seen so much improvement in the private sector, the utilities companies too are making great strides in the way they treat people in debt.

"Local and national governments are put in place to serve the nation, and whilst they do a very good job in so many areas, their practices in debt collection fall a long way short."

Richard Watts, chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA) resources board, said: "Councils look to take steps to make sure that people in financial difficulty are supported, whether that's through signposting to free debt advice, or through the joint Council Tax Protocol, which the LGA has developed alongside Citizens Advice to support those who are struggling.

"Councils only ever undertake debt collection as a last resort. Before this, 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.

"No council wants to have to debt collect from its residents, particularly from people on low incomes, but local authorities have a duty to their residents to collect taxes which fund essential services, such as protecting vulnerable children, caring for the elderly, collecting bins, and keeping roads maintained."

He continued: "Anyone who is having trouble paying their council tax or bills should contact their local authority as soon as possible, for financial help and advice, and to discuss the options available."

A Government spokesman said: "We understand people get very worried about debt. We do all we can to help by working with them to pay back debts over time. Our advice to anyone struggling with debt is to get in touch so we can help them."