Social Justice

Missing one council tax payment can cost more than £2,000

'Outdated' local authority rules and aggressive bailiffs are causing serious harm, Citizens Advice said

uk poverty cost of living crisis

Millions more people are being pushed into poverty because of the cost of living crisis.

One missed average council tax payment can end up costing someone £2,065 within just nine weeks, a new report has revealed.

Citizens Advice blasted the “outdated and punitive” council tax debt collection rules which its research shows are “causing people serious financial harm” in England and Wales.

When someone falls behind on their council tax bill on the first month of the financial year, they are then liable for the rest of their annual bill after just two weeks.

At this point more fees are added to the debt, with residents finding themselves billed with court costs (£84) and bailiff fees (£310).

Mark, 53, is unemployed and has a mental health condition. He said: “Last year was not a good year in terms of my health or finances. I had so many debts that it became very stressful and hard to find a way to make my money stretch to cover them all.

“In August, a letter arrived from a bailiff. I had become liable for the full year bill and my council tax debt was now with them.”

He emailed the bailiffs to ask which documents they would need for him to be classed as vulnerable. The calls were ignored, Mark said, but he continued to receive threatening phone calls.

“I felt really intimidated, agreeing to pay £10 a month, even though I knew I could not afford it.

“In October I applied for a debt relief order but even while that was being processed, the bailiffs continued to demand immediate payments and threatened to send people around.

“When the order went through I was so relieved – those three months were frankly the most stressful and upsetting I’ve ever had.”

The charity estimated that more than £560m in just fees were added to people’s council tax debts in £2016-17.

Roughly 2.2 million households were found to be behind with their council tax – nearly 10 per cent of all those liable to pay it.

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “By forcing local authorities to use rigid and outdated collection processes, council tax regulations make it harder for people to pay their original debts instead of helping them to get their finances back on track.

“Through its council tax collection review, the government must fundamentally reform the regulations governing how local authorities collect debts.

“Punitive processes such as charging a full year’s bill after a single monthly payment is missed show how broken the system is – they both tie the hands of councils and force people into debt.”

Council tax arrears is the single most common issue people go to Citizens Advice for help with.

Those arrears grew by 30 per cent between 2010 and 2018 – rising more than 6 per cent in the last year alone.

Councillor Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s resources board, emphasised that squeezed budgets mean local authorities are relying more and more on council tax to continue running public services.

He added: “Councils want it to be easier to recover money without having to go to the courts so would be in favour of a review of the regulations, including whether to remove the requirement for the entire annual sum to become payable if an instalment is missed.”

Campaigners want the rules changed so that residents are not liable for the rest of the year’s bill if they miss a payment and for the threat of imprisonment to be removed entirely.

The government will consider reforms in a review later this year, a government spokesperson said. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said it expects councils “to be sympathetic to those in genuine hardship and proportionate in enforcement”.

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