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Council Tax

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Post by assassin on Sun Apr 14, 2019 1:34 am

Council tax debts soar 40% in six years

Council tax debts have soared by nearly 40% in six years, Guardian research has found, with charities warning these arrears now rival credit card debts as their biggest concern.

Amid warnings that “heavy-handed” collection tactics are putting severe pressure on those already in financial difficulty, households face a fourth consecutive year of above-inflation council tax rises as local authorities attempt to recoup money cut from their budgets by central government. The annual band D bill will rise by an average of £75.60.

Guardian analysis of government figures found the total amount of council tax arrears across England and Wales in the 2017-18 financial year was £944m, 37% higher than in 2012-13, when it was £691m.

The total council tax debt in 2017-18 was £3bn, an increase of 27% on 2012-13, when it was just under £2.4bn.

Prison sentences should be used only if those who fail to pay have shown “wilful neglect or wilful refusal”, meaning people who are in arrears because they cannot afford to pay should not be imprisoned. But campaigners say many of those given jail terms have acquired the debts because they cannot afford their bills.

Figures released following a freedom of information request reveal 305 people were given prison sentences in the same period for failing to pay their council tax, while a further 6,278 received suspended sentences.

Campaigners called for the laws in England to be changed so non-payment of council tax was not punishable with a prison sentence. In November, the Welsh government joined Scotland and Northern Ireland in removing custodial sentences from punishments for not paying local taxes.

Debt charities said council tax debts were becoming a primary concern as requests for help with credit card debts and personal loans fell. In 2018, 30% of callers to the National Debtline had council tax arrears, up from 15% in 2008. The percentage of callers who reported credit card debts fell from 67% to 35% in the same period.

Joanna Elson, the chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs the National Debtline, said council tax debt was one of the fastest-growing types it helped with.

“Local authorities need to intervene as early as possible to ensure that people struggling to pay their council tax receive the free debt advice they need – as well as agreeing repayment arrangements that are affordable and sustainable,” she said.

In 2013, responsibility for supporting low-income households to pay council tax was given to local government, and funding for it was cut, though pensioners are still protected. Council tax arrears had fallen by 10% in the five years before that.

According to recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 90% of English councils have cut council tax support for those of working age. As a result, an extra 1.3 million working-age households are sent council tax bills and another 1.2 million have to pay more.

Local authorities in England are allowed to raise their council tax by up to 2.99% without holding a referendum, plus a further 2% if they provide social care. Research by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy found 80% of local authorities were imposing the maximum increase permitted this year. Increases vary substantially between regions, ranging from an average of £71 in London to £86 in the north-east.

Regulation 47 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 allows magistrates to commit someone with council tax debt to prison. Individuals can be jailed for up to three months and, as it is a civil offence, they do not get a criminal record. While the prison term does not clear the debt, once someone has been imprisoned, the council cannot use further enforcement measures.

Campaigners have also criticised local authorities’ regular use of bailiffs to collect debts. Research by the Money Advice Trust found local authorities in England and Wales referred 2.3m debts to bailiffs in 2016-17, an increase of 14% on 2014-15.

A report published by the justice select committee on 11 April recommended the government introduce new regulation for the bailiff industry to ensure people in debt are treated fairly. On Wednesday, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) announced it would issue new guidance on how councils collect debts.

Last year, Citizens Advice helped almost 96,000 people with council tax debt and 67,000 people with credit card problems. About 30,000 people had an issue with bailiffs, 10,000 asked about the right of a local authority to use bailiffs to enforce the debt, and 2,600 people with council tax debt approached the charity due to issues relating to threats of prison.

Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, said more people came to the charity for help with council tax arrears than any other type of debt. “It’s a huge issue for those in financial difficulty,” she said.

“Falling behind on a council tax bill can lead to serious consequences and send debts spiralling. The government must look at the rules that oversee council tax collection to encourage local authorities to use less heavy-handed tactics when collecting arrears.”

A spokesperson for MHCLG said: “We expect councils to show sympathy for people in genuine hardship and only use court action as a last resort, but every penny of council tax not collected means a higher bill for the majority of people who do pay.”

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