Working with the Council to improve its procedure for collecting Council Tax Arrears
What are the problems?
Many of our clients face stressful court action if they fall behind with their monthly payments of Council Tax and fall into arrears, and some are unfairly subjected to enforcement by bailiffs.
Jane* is a client who ran up debts, including Council Tax arrears, while she was dependent on benefits but made arrangements to repay her creditors by monthly instalments when she got a job. Her other creditors accepted her repayment plans, but the council would not consider her repayment plan for her Council Tax arrears. It told her to wait until it had taken court action to get a Liability Order for her to repay the whole amount. So unnecessary court costs were added to her debt.
Selena* is an elderly widow living on her own in social housing who came to us for assistance to deal with her Council Tax arrears. We helped her provide a monthly repayment plan that the council accepted. Despite this, the council passed her debt to bailiffs to enforce. They began to press her to pay the full amount owing, causing her considerable, unnecessary stress.
Most worrying of all are cases where our clients cannot use the internet or understand complex correspondence or have severe mental health problems so that they are unable to deal with their debts consistently without constant support. There can be no progress when the council fails to recognise that these clients are vulnerable and continues to apply its standard procedure for recovering Council Tax arrears without collaborating with those who are trying to support them.
What are we doing to help?
In 2018 we reviewed our clients’ experience of the council’s procedure for collecting Council Tax arrears and as a result of the problems identified asked for a meeting with the head of the Council Tax department. Our aim has been to establish a closer working relationship with the Council to improve the operation of its procedure for recovering Council Tax arrears from our clients. Nationally Citizens Advice has agreed with the Local Government Association a Good Practice Protocol to improve local authorities’ procedures for collecting Council Tax arrears and several London Councils have signed up to it. We urged Richmond Council to do the same.
Towards the end of 2018 the head of the Council Tax department responded, refusing to discuss the Good Practice Protocol but offering a three month pilot to test the value of a procedure to enable serious unresolved problems with our clients’ CT arrears to be raised with designated senior managers. After a meeting to discuss this further we reached agreement to start this pilot at the end of April 2019. A briefing note on the procedure and examples of the types of issues that should be raised with the Council’s senior managers, based on our previous research, was issued to all our advisers. We will now be monitoring the impact of the procedure in improving the way our clients’ arrears are dealt with in preparation for a review by the end of July 2019.
* All client names have been changed to preserve confidentiality