Hold off bailiffs for council tax arrears, town halls told

24 May 13
Councils should take a flexible and fair approach to poorer residents who get into arrears as council tax support is cut away, Citizens Advice said today.

By Vivienne Russell | 24 May 2013

Councils should take a flexible and fair approach to poorer residents who get into arrears as council tax support is cut away, Citizens Advice said today.

Council tax

Local authorities are administering their own council tax support schemes following the devolution of national Council Tax Benefit in April. But the money passed to councils to fund the support was cut by 10.

Pensioners’ entitlement to the benefit has been protected, but many working-age households are likely to have to pay more. Citizens Advice said new demands for council tax could trigger a ‘boom time’ for bailiffs.

The charity highlighted mounting concern over council tax bills. Visits to its website advice pages on councils hit 37,000 during April – 87% higher than in the same month last year.

In 2012/13, Citizens Advice in England and Wales dealt with almost 61,000 problems concerning bailiffs, of which about a third were related to council tax debts. There were also 162,000 other problems concerning council tax arrears. Citizens Advice bureaux expect these numbers to rise even further this year.

Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: ‘We’re concerned that changes to council tax benefit will mean more people will end up in debt because they can’t pay their bill and have the bailiff knocking at their door.

‘The number of people worried about council tax is up by 87% since the changes came in, and this will climb even higher as more people find it difficult to cope with costs. Bailiffs often overstate their powers, deliberately frighten debtors and charge extortionate fees. We want councils to help people get on top of their council tax debts so the use of bailiffs is no longer necessary.’

In response, the Local Government Association said councils always try to work with people who are struggling to pay their council tax bill by offering them flexible payment plans or helping them apply for council tax support.

‘Bailiffs are the option of absolute last resort,’ said LGA chair Sir Merrick Cockell.

‘Before the situation reaches a stage where bailiffs are involved, several letters will have been written, people will have been encouraged to apply for financial support, and efforts will be made to arrange new payment plans or to attach the debt to a salary.’

But he added that councils had a responsibility to all taxpayers to ensure that council tax was collected in order to fund vital local services.

‘Usually more than 97% of council tax is collected in the year it is billed,’ said Cockell.

Responding to Citizens Advice, local government minister Brandon Lewis said that localisation of Council Tax Benefit formed part of the government’s welfare reforms, which are vital to tackling the budget deficit.

He added: ‘Councils have set up their own council tax support schemes and should have taken into account the impact on vulnerable people. For those facing genuine hardship, there are free advice services that can offer help and support, and many councils have put in place hardship funds to provide financial assistance to people in difficult circumstances.

‘It is important that councils are sympathetic to those in genuine hardship, are proportionate in enforcement and do not overuse bailiffs. The coalition government has taken action to rein in aggressive bailiffs.’

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