Council agrees new debt collection plan after bailiff use rises by 71%

Shute End Wokingham
Wokingham Borough Council's offices in Shute End

AFTER increasingly sending out bailiffs to collect council tax debts, the council has agreed to better support residents to manage their debts.

For the last two council meetings, Cllr Rachel Burgess, Labour councillor for Norreys has called for the council to adopt the Citizens Advice Council Tax Protocol, which would see more formal support arrangements for those struggling with tax debts.

She submitted a motion for debate, but due to time constraints it has been missed out.

In last week’s executive meeting, Cllr John Kaiser, executive member for finance and housing, said the council would try to meet the protocol within the current tax year.

Cllr Kaiser told Wokingham.Today: “We were very aware the protocol was agreed with the Local Government Association (LGA) as best practice, but we never really formalised it.”

The protocol states the council must work with enforcement agencies and Citizens Advice to help people pay their council tax bills while accessing debt advice. It calls for clear communication with residents about council tax, and flexible payment arrangements.

It also states that the council must not use enforcement agents when a resident receives council tax support.

Cllr Kaiser added: “We’re very much in step with the protocol, we already do flexible repayments, and help those that can’t pay. We want to do as much as we can. But a council with no money is no use either.”

Cllr Burgess said: “The adoption of the protocol means that hundreds and hundreds of residents will now get the proper support they deserve in order to manage their debts.

“People can find themselves all too quickly at the sharp end of council tax debts. Often a resident’s first real engagement with the issue is when the bailiffs knock on their door.

“We have been told by the Tory executive that bailiffs are only used as a ‘last resort’ but the facts appear to tell a different story – bailiff use in Wokingham rose by 71% between 2016-2017 and 2018-2019, in stark contrast to neighbouring authorities where bailiff use has reduced.”

Research by the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline and Business Debtline, showed that Wokingham Borough Council issued 1,306 referrals to bailiffs for council tax collection in 2016-2017 and 2,239 in 2018-2019.

Cllr Burgess added: “The impact of this prolific use of bailiffs by Wokingham will have had a devastating impact on some of our most vulnerable families.

“Research shows that heavy-handed tactics put severe pressure on individuals. It doesn’t scare them into paying. Instead these tactics create fear and distress with individuals less likely to be able to sort out their finances, and repay their debts. This in turn puts more pressure on council finances.

“The impact on people’s mental health of poor debt collection practices can be devastating. People in financial difficulty can feel isolated, ashamed and often completely overwhelmed, especially as council tax debt can escalate so quickly. There is a wealth of evidence linking problem debt with increased risk of suicide.”

But Cllr Kaiser said he was very surprised to hear that bailiff use had risen in the borough, and put it down to rising numbers of residents.

He said: “It really varies, it waxes and wanes depending on the number of cases at the time.

“But we haven’t sent any bailiffs out during the pandemic, we’re very sensitive to what’s going on and we work closely with the Citizens Advice.”

Cllr Burgess said she is glad that “the executive have seen sense” and will be adopting the protocol formally.

She added: “People [will] finally get the proper, professional support they need to manage their debts, instead of officious, frightening letters from the council followed by a knock from the bailiff.”

Jake Morrision, chief executive of Citizens Advice Wokingham said he was glad to see the formalising of processes.

He told Wokingham.Today: “The council adopting our council tax protocol is good news for people who fall behind on their council tax, an issue we unfortunately anticipate seeing more of in the near future.

“This guidance will further help in the borough struggling with their finances and prevent them from facing even more serious problems such as court action.

“We’ve worked in partnership with the council to develop these principles around tax collection which will help families who are struggling to make ends meet, and to enable the council to recoup more of the tax they are owed.

“We already have a very good relationship through our Council Tax Arrears project and the council are very responsive, with good working relationships between our teams. 

“It is great to see the close relationship being ratified though, by the willingness to take this one step further by signing up. We think it sends out a powerful message to local residents that we are working together to listen and help, with an element of early intervention.”

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