Could councils improve tax collection?

Citizens Advice

Citizens Advice and the Local Government Association (LGA) are encouraging councils in England to adopt a new protocol to improve council tax collection.

The protocol is launched as Citizens Advice reports that growing numbers of people are turning to them for help with council tax issues. Figures from the national charity show that, while other debt issues are falling, problems with council tax arrears have risen sharply since 2013. In the last year alone, the charity helped clients in England with 201,000 such problems.

The protocol, which was developed by Citizens Advice with other debt advice agencies and local authorities, aims to help councils in England improve the experience of residents in arrears whilst collecting what is owed.

Many councils have already worked with their their local Citizens Advice to improve their debt collection practices and ensure that action is taken early, and people get the help they need. The protocol is also designed to help councils recoup more outstanding tax and save money elsewhere, particularly in housing and mental health services. Difficult in Bude/Cornwall as Citizens Advice is so thin on the ground! Shame the need here has not really been addressed. Funding cuts meant service cuts and people are left with nothing much! 

The charity’s work to design the collection protocol follows its research showing how councils’ handling of arrears can make residents’ problems worse. A Citizens Advice study carried out last year found that over two thirds (69%) of those in council tax arrears found it harder to clear their debts as a result of the council’s actions. Most (71%) had extra charges added to their bills while half (48%) had been visited by bailiffs.

Council tax arrears are also commonly linked with other issues. People in arrears turning to Citizens Advice for help have an average household income of £960 a month – less than 40% of the national average. Figures also show that 32% of people seeking help from Citizens Advice who have mental health problems are advised on council tax arrears.

According to Citizens Advice, intervening early means that councils can stop residents reaching ‘crisis point’ which, as well as being harmful to the individual, puts a strain on council services. Setting up realistic repayment plans also means that outstanding debts are more likely to be repaid.

Gillian Guy, Citizens Advice Chief Executive, said:

“Good debt collection practices help people keep control of their finances, and stop problems from getting worse.

“We know that councils are under pressure to collect council tax. But when people are struggling to pay, escalating the issue can lead to debt spiraling and problems getting worse. Early intervention and contact with people behind on bill payments can help prevent them incurring further charges and help reduce stress.

“What’s more, by agreeing sustainable repayment plans, and helping people avoid reaching crisis points, such as homelessness, uncontrollable debt or health difficulties, councils can maximise the amount of council tax that is collected, and reduce expenditure elsewhere.

“Many councils work closely with their local Citizens Advice to improve how they collect council tax. There are numerous examples from all over the country of good practice and we hope our protocol will be adopted by more councils to benefit them and residents alike.”

Cllr. Claire Kober, Chair of the LGA’s Resources Board said:

“Councils know that early intervention is crucial when it comes to supporting those residents struggling with paying their bills. We’re happy to work with Citizens Advice to develop our best practice and support residents as best we can.

“Councils have a duty to their residents to collect taxes so important services are not affected. But we realise that times are tough and will always seek to take a sympathetic and constructive approach.

“We hope this new initiative will help us to support our residents through times of financial difficulty, and provide a sustainable footing for the future, both for councils and those struggling with debt.”

Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline, said:

“Local government debt collection practices continue to attract scrutiny.  However, we are seeing more and more local authorities engaging with the debt advice sector and looking to improve.  This updated protocol lays out how local authorities can recover council tax arrears in a fair and efficient way – and is a must-read for members and officers alike.  We look forward to working with Citizens Advice and the Local Government Association to support its roll-out in the months ahead.”

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