Households in council tax arrears left with just £7 after bills
That’s according to Citizens Advice, which says nine in 10 people who seek help from the charity over council tax debt also owe money on other household bills, most commonly water and energy.
The average debtor has just £7 left after bills but four in 10 have no money left at all.
The charity said government regulation is forcing people into financial hardship as councils use courts and bailiffs to recover money, adding more fees to the debt pile.
By missing just one council tax payment, households become liable for the full annual bill a fortnight later. This means missing an average council tax payment of £167 can escalate to a debt of £2,000 in a matter of weeks.
Citizens Advice added that government regulations are also failing local councils as every £1 of debt referred to bailiffs sees just 27p returned.
The charity helped more than 83,000 people in England with council tax arrears last year – 40% more than the next biggest debt issue.
In one case, a woman called Macia who stopped working due to poor health fell behind on rent, council tax and energy bills as she was waiting on a benefit decision.
Marcia said: “I have had the bailiffs round which is scary as I just don’t have the money to pay them. They are asking me to repay so much that, if I do pay it, I won’t have enough money to pay towards my gas and electric debt or have food.
“It’s really stressful as I just don’t know how I can afford to repay all these debts when I am expected to pay out more than I have coming in.”
‘Terrifying and ineffective’
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Government regulations push local authorities to use harsh collection process. They pile rapidly-escalating debts on people who barely have enough money to get by.
“Many people who need our help with council tax arrears have no more than a few pounds spare every month to repay their debts. An unexpected bill for thousands of pounds, accompanied by legal threats and bailiff action, is terrifying for the person concerned and ineffective for the council trying to recover the debt.
“To protect people from further harm, the government must change the rules to give councils the flexibility to collect council tax fairly and compassionately.”
Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government’s Association’s Resources Board, said councils have a duty to their residents to collect taxes so they can provide services, but better guidance and funding is necessary.
He said: “Councils would be in favour of it being made easier for them to recover money without having to use bailiffs, and would support the removal of the requirement for the entire annual sum to become payable if an instalment is missed.
“Bailiffs should only ever be used as a last resort by councils. Before it gets to that stage, people will have been encouraged to apply for financial support by their council. Anyone having trouble paying their council bills should get in touch with their local authority for financial help and advice as soon as possible.”