Council tax benefit was axed in April 2013 and replaced by a localised scheme, council tax support. The new scheme has 10% less government funding than the old, national scheme, and has meant some councils have started to make savings by reducing the number of people entitled to the benefit, or have cut the amount of benefit people receive.
Council tax collection is already a lucrative business for bailiffs. In the year to March 2013, Citizens Advice bureaux in England and Wales helped with 60,652 problems to do with bailiffs; a third of these were for council tax debts, and 161,564 problems with council tax arrears.
But the latest changes to the benefit have already led to a substantial leap in the number of people visiting Citizens Advice worried about council tax, it said. It said it has also seen a trebling of the number of people seeking online advice about how to deal with bailiffs in the year to April.
“We’re concerned that changes to council tax benefit will mean more people will end up in debt because they can’t pay their bill and have the bailiff knocking at their door,” said Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy. “Bailiffs often overstate their powers, deliberately frighten debtors and charge extortionate fees. We want councils to help people get on top of their council tax debts so the use of bailiffs is no longer necessary.”
Raymond Merry and his wife Susan recently found themselves at the sharp end of bailiff’s practice. They fell a month behind on their council tax payments after both being taken ill in December and then paid their January bill two days late. “The next thing I knew I had a note pushed under my door by a bailiff who was sitting in a van outside,” said Mr Merry. “He tried to walk in but I stopped him. He told me we owed him £300 – £107 was our debt and the rest in fees to him.” The Merrys then paid off their arrears but the bailiffs kept coming round. “My wife was very worried and we felt threatened,” said Mr Merry. “In the end, after we had told them numerous times that we had been to Citizens Advice and that we had paid off our arrears, they stopped coming round.”
Recent figures released by the Money Advice Trust also show a sharp, long-term trend in calls to its National Debtline service for help with council tax arrears, with one-fifth of the calls made to the service in 2012 asking for help for this type of debt. In the past five years, calls for help with council tax have increased 40%. The charity estimates this rise is partly down to the increasing use of bailiffs to collect debts owed to local authorities.
Recent changes to legislation have been designed to reign in bailiff’s powers, although debt charities argue they don’t go far enough. The safeguards, introduced by the Ministry of Justice, will prevent bailiffs from: visiting a property outside the hours of 6am to 9pm; using force against people who owe money; fixing their own enforcement fees – the government is introducing a set fee structure designed “to end excessive and multiple fees”.
In August 2012 Citizens Advice analysed over 400 bailiff problems and found two in five bailiffs threatened the use of force to gain access to a property and one in four threatened to take items, such as clothing or work tools, that are banned from removal by debt collectors.
24th May 2013