Concern over use of bailiffs to chase council tax debts

Charities have raised concerns over councils' "aggressive" use of bailiffs to chase people in council tax arrears after seeing record numbers of cries for help with such debts.

StepChange Debt Charity said one in four (25%) callers to its free National Debtline service in 2015 were in arrears on their council tax - up from 14% in 2007.

Analysis of StepChange's clients found in 2015, those with council arrears typically owed £961 - a 25% increase compared with 2011. In 2011, just 14% of the charity's clients had council tax arrears, but by last year the proportion had increased to 30%. 

Meanwhile another charity, the Money Advice Trust (MAT), has also raised concerns. Previous research from the MAT suggested the number of debts being passed to bailiffs by local authorities has increased in recent years.  

The charities said a greater focus on affordable repayment plans by councils could reduce the stress felt by those in financial difficulty - and help councils recover more money in the longer term. They said the use of bailiffs can sometimes prompt people to make decisions that will deepen their financial problems.

StepChange said a previous survey of its clients with council tax arrears showed that nearly two-thirds (62%) of people struggling with arrears who contacted their council for help were still threatened with court action, while 51% were threatened with bailiff action and only 13% were encouraged to seek debt advice.

The charities said some councils will rule out bailiff action in cases where the resident receives council tax support, on the grounds that they have already been identified as financially vulnerable. They said this approach should be adopted more widely.

The charities also want to see a statutory "breathing space" scheme that guarantees those seeking debt advice a temporary freeze on interest, charges and a halt to enforcement action - to help people get their finances back on track. 

Joanna Elson, chief executive of the MAT, said: "Bailiffs should only ever be used as a last resort - and they shouldn't be used at all in the case of recipients of council tax support."

Mike O'Connor, chief executive of StepChange, said: "The increasing levels of council tax arrears are a continuing cause for concern.

"We know that often the default position of councils is to aggressively pursue arrears through the court process and by instructing bailiffs...

"This counter-productive approach needs to stop immediately and be replaced with one that is fairer and more constructive."

Councillor Claire Kober, resources portfolio holder at the Local Government Association (LGA), said: "Councils do have a duty to their residents to collect taxes so important services are not affected.

"But we realise that times are tough and councils do their best to protect those affected the most, whether through introducing hardship funds or taking a sympathetic and constructive approach to the way they collect unpaid tax.

"We have worked closely with Citizens Advice on a protocol for councils using bailiffs when recovering debts. It includes the need for fair collection and enforcement policies and the ability for councils to take back cases involving vulnerable families.

"We agree that bailiffs should only ever be used as a last resort. Before the situation reaches a stage where bailiffs are involved several letters should have been written, people should have been encouraged to apply for financial support, and efforts should be made to arrange new payment plans or to attach the debt to a salary.

"It is in everyone's interest to ensure those struggling to pay their council tax bills are set up on affordable and sustainable payment plans."

A Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) spokesman said the "vast majority" of people pay their council tax bills on time. 

He continued: "We have also made it easier for households to pay their bills in monthly instalments and published guidance to stop bad practices from aggressive bailiffs.

"However, every penny of council tax that is not collected means a higher bill for everyone in the area so we expect councils to be sympathetic to those in genuine hardship, but take appropriate action to chase up outstanding debts, while delivering a fair deal for local families."

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