The methods used by local authorities for collecting unpaid council tax are pushing some people further into debt, according to Citizens Advice.
The charity investigated debt collection practices at English councils and found that some add extra charges to debt, send in bailiffs and take court action against residents before they try to arrange manageable repayment plans with them.
This makes it harder for those in debt to pay it off – and, ironically, can also mean councils face a longer wait to collect the money they're owed.
In one case a £27 debt rose to £417 because the council added fees for calling bailiffs and obtaining a court order.
Councils sometimes force those who've missed a monthly council tax instalment to pay the remaining annual cost upfront – a practice the charity wants to stop. It's also calling for more councils to offer debtors affordable repayment plans.
In a survey of 1,000 people with experience of council tax debt, over half said the council's actions made it harder to clear their debts.
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'Cutting back on food and heating'
Citizens Advice asked more than 1,000 people in England with council tax debt about their experience:
- 54% said the council's actions made it harder to clear their debts
- 71% said they had extra charges added to their bill
- 48% had been visited by a bailiff
- 30% were offered an affordable repayment plan
- 46% said their council stopped allowing them to pay by monthly instalments and demanded it be paid upfront
It also found most of those affected were working, and many had to cut back on life's essentials:
- 65% were in work
- 56% said they cut back on food or heating because of their council tax debt
- 26% sold or pawned their belongings because of the debt
Citizens Advice has seen a 33% increase in requests for help with council tax debts over the last three years, at a time when queries about other types of debt have been falling.
'Bailiffs should be a last resort'
A spokesman for the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents local councils, said they "have a duty to their residents to collect taxes so important services are not affected", but added "we agree bailiffs should only ever be used as a last resort".
It said some councils do help residents by introducing "hardships funds or taking a sympathetic and constructive approach" to the way they collect unpaid tax.
"We have worked closely with Citizens Advice on a protocol for councils using bailiffs when recovering debts. It includes the need for fair collection and enforcement policies and the ability for councils to take back cases involving vulnerable families," the LGA added.
Additional reporting by Press Association.