Counter-productive council tax collection practices work for no one, says Citizens Advice
Households struggling to pay their council tax are being pushed into further debt as outdated regulations see councils resort to bailiffs to collect arrears, says Citizens Advice in new research published today.
Currently, when people miss a single council tax payment they automatically became liable for the full year’s bill. The rules also push councils to use the court process to collect arrears, and do not set out what good collection looks like.
It says the regulations governing the collection of council tax in England limit the ability of local councils to collect debts in a fair way. Instead the regulations make it harder for people to get their finances back on track.
Citizens Advice is calling on the next government to reform these rules as part of the charity’s election manifesto. It says many cash-strapped councils are resorting to using bailiffs which its evidence shows is both ineffective and expensive.
Its new figures from Freedom of Information requests show that last year, for every £1 referred to bailiffs for collection, councils received just 27p in return.
The national charity has also found:
Bailiffs cost 53p for every £1 they recovered. Most of these costs are paid by people in financial difficulty. This is money that could otherwise be used to pay back arrears
Bailiffs failed to collect an average of £2.5 million per council last year
Over the last five years, on average, bailiffs only collected 30% of the arrears they were sent.
Each year, Citizens Advice helps 86,000 people in England with council tax issues - it is the most common debt problem brought to the charity. In 2018, an estimated 2.2 million households in England were behind on their council tax bill.
What needs to change?
Citizens Advice wants the next government to make it easier for councils to improve collection practices. It says changes to the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 are needed to:
Stop people being asked to pay their entire annual bill if they miss one monthly payment
Make it easier for councils to improve collection - by giving them more powers to collect debt without getting a court order first
Improve practice across the country - by setting out more steps councils must take before using the court process
Protect vulnerable people by removing the threat of imprisonment for council tax arrears.
Karen F, 52, who is unemployed and caring for her adult son, said:
“I live and care for my adult son who has a mental health condition so am not currently working. When I fell behind on my council tax, the council sent the debt over to the bailiffs.
“I called the bailiff to explain I could not afford to pay the original debt, let alone the fees that had been added, pleading for them to send the debt back to the council because even if they took items from my home, it would not cover the debt.
“It then went quiet for weeks and I didn’t hear from the bailiffs or council. Then I got a letter from the council who said I had missed another payment and if I did not pay I would go to prison.
“The bailiff had sent the debt back to the council but no one had told me anything and I missed the payment as a result.
“The whole thing was so draining and scary. It would have been easier and less stressful if the council had just allowed me to make a repayment arrangement in the first place.”
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:
“Council tax debt is now worryingly common but the collection system is broken. 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.
“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.”
Notes to editors
1. We sent a Freedom of Information request to all 317 English councils that collect council tax between 25 April and 30 July 2019. Our analysis is based on the 286 responses we had received by 15 October. We asked local authorities to provide information for each financial year between 2013-2019 on: number of liability orders, bailiff referrals, repayment plans, third party deductions and attachment of earnings orders, total value of debt referred to bailiffs, value of arrears recovered by bailiffs, and total costs of bailiff action.
2. We have estimated the costs of bailiff use to be £196m in 2018/19. This is based on the average cost councils reported in response to the FOI request. Previously we have estimated that bailiff fees added more than £500 million to people’s debts in the same period. The full methodology for that estimate can be found in The Costs of Collection.
3. The process by which council tax debt escalates is as follows: A notice is issued 2 weeks after a bill is due. After a further 2 weeks, people become liable for their total annual bill. If this bill is not paid, after a further 2 weeks councils can issue a court summons and liability order. If the liability order is not paid within 14 days, the debt can be passed to a bailiff incurring a £75 enforcement fee. A further 7 days later, the debt can be escalated to ‘enforcement stage’. In total, a debt can escalate to enforcement stage within 9 weeks.
4. Citizens Advice has developed a council tax collection protocol in partnership with the Local Government Association. So far, 65 councils have signed up to the protocol, covering over 12.1m people. The impact of the protocol on council practice is currently being evaluated.
5. The Money Advice Trust has published findings from a number of FOI requests to local authorities since 2015. This is the latest Stop the Knock report.
6. Citizens Advice wants these changes made alongside the creation of an independent bailiff regulator to make sure bailiffs don’t mistreat people, a call which has been backed by cross party MPs on the Justice Select Committee. The Ministry of Justice was due to report back on this in the summer of 2019.
7. The impact of aggressive debt collection was highlighted by MPs on the Treasury Select Committee last year, labelling government and local authorities “worst in class” for debt collection. They called for the public sector to raise its standards to the level of industry best practice - consumer creditors do not use many of the tactics used by local authorities. In September 2018, the National Audit Office said there was evidence that aggressive enforcement action is ineffective, and can be harmful in situations when someone is struggling to pay their debt.
8. Citizens Advice includes the national charity; the network of independent local Citizens Advice charities across England and Wales; the Citizens Advice consumer service; and the Witness Service.
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13. To get advice online or find your local Citizens Advice, visit citizensadvice.org.uk
14. For consumer advice, call the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 or 03454 04 05 05 to talk in Welsh.
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