Joe Cox from our friends at Debt Justice (formerly the Jubilee Debt Campaign) introduces their new campaign to make council tax collection more humane and more effective – by ending council’s use of bailiffs.
In its latest annual release the UK government found that £4.4 billion of council tax arrears built up during the pandemic. This debt could now lead to a dramatic increase in councils using bailiffs for collection and it couldn’t come at a worse time with households being hit by another cost of living crisis. Enforcement action is cruel, outdated and ineffective. In addition, there is not any link between stricter council tax collection policies and higher council tax collection rates.
Council Tax collection is inflexible, with local authorities often billing for an entire year’s charge after one missed payment – the amount due can increase tenfold in a matter of weeks. After adding additional charges, people struggling to keep up with payments can quickly fall into debt and poverty. The Trussell Trust recently reported that debt repayments to local and central government push people into destitution, leading them to food banks.
Citizens Advice have calculated that their clients who have council tax arrears with court and bailiff fees added will take an average of four years just to pay off this debt. The total added to people’s debts in 2016/2017 was £560 million, the equivalent of £278 for every household in council tax arrears. This is money being sucked out of communities and from local economies that are already on the edge.
Paying back high levels of debt including council tax arrears, often leads to agonising choices about whether to go without heating or food, borrow from high-cost lenders or even illegal loan sharks to survive. Some debt advisors are now saying that the people they advise no longer even have this painful choice, having to both go without heating and skip meals.
The impact of debt
50% of people that are heavily in debt have a mental health problem. Poor enforcement practice is widespread with an estimated one in three bailiffs breaking the rules – bailiffs enter people’s homes (sometimes with children inside) before six am or after nine pm, using force and intimidation, seize possessions from the wrong people, and often cause trauma in the process. People who have experienced a financial crisis in the last six months are nearly eight times more likely to think about suicide. Bailiff action can have tragic consequences.
There are lots of misapprehensions about what causes people to fall behind on council tax payments and argue that bailiffs are necessary for enforcement, but the main reason that people fall behind on payments is that they cannot afford them. Lower council tax collection rates are associated with areas of higher poverty and higher collection rates are associated with areas of lower poverty. Local authorities can better serve their residents by focussing on tackling the root cause of missed payments: low and insecure incomes.
What needs to change
There are tried and tested methods to prevent people falling into arrears, including more generous council tax reduction. Council Tax Reduction schemes discount council tax by 70%-100% for people with low incomes and more generous schemes are linked with higher collection rates. Each local authority runs their own scheme and exempting people who cannot afford payments from council tax bills can avoid the painful process of missed payments, arrears and enforcement action.
Other options include greater discretionary support like hardship funds, signposting to free debt advice and payment flexibility. These steps reduce the need for costly and drawn-out court and enforcement proceedings.
If it becomes clear that a resident is unable to pay due to their financial circumstances, the realistic and ethical option is to write off the debt. When debt is written off it can help people obtain a fresh start and rebuild their lives, meaning they are more likely to be able to start paying council tax again in the future.
Local authorities must of course balance their responsibility to collect council tax efficiently whilst ensuring that people who cannot afford to pay are supported not punished. However, there is not any link between stricter council tax collection policies and higher council tax collection rates. In April 2018, Hammersmith & Fulham council announced an end to bailiff action, and they have subsequently seen a rise in council tax collection rates.
The use of bailiffs by local authorities is ineffective, outdated and cruel – it is a stark manifestation of the failings of our economy, tax and social security system. That is why we’re calling on local authorities to learn from the best practice of other councils and ban the bailiffs.