Council tax debt is common — Across England 2.2 million households are behind on their payments. It is the most common debt problem Citizens Advice helps people with, impacting 86,000 clients in England last year.

Earlier this year Citizens Advice submitted a Freedom of Information Act to gather 5 year’s worth of data from councils in England to ask about how they collect council tax arrears. The result is that the use of bailiffs isn’t working for anyone.

When people miss a single council tax payment, regulations stipulate they should become liable for the full year’s outstanding tax.  This means a missed payment on an average Band D property of £167 can increase to a debt of £1671 within 2 weeks of receiving notice.

In England, people can still be sent to prison for falling behind on their council tax.  While the power is rarely used, it undermines efforts to make council tax debt collection less punitive.

Last year we helped 96,000 clients who were struggling to make payments. In total in 2016/17, people in council tax debt paid an estimated £129 million in bailiff fees and court costs on top of their arrears. In the same period, a total of approximately £560 million was added to people’s debts as a result of court and bailiff costs. Bailiffs were used 1.4 million times for council tax, and failed to collect £790 million. That is equivalent to adding nearly £278 to every household’s debt that was in council tax arrears.

Often, the problems people face relate to the way council tax debt is collected. A third of council tax problems we helped people with last year were related to collection practices.

All councils approach debt collection differently. But one particular problem stood out. The regulations make it hard for councils to be flexible and push them into using bailiffs to recover arrears. The information provided by councils suggests that’s bad for people in debt and for councils themselves. This is for 2 reasons:

1. Bailiffs are ineffective

Last year, councils used bailiffs over 1.4 million times to collect council tax. They used other methods, like third party deductions from benefits, far less.

But over the last 5 years, bailiffs only collected 30% of the council tax debts they were sent.

2. Bailiffs are expensive

Last year bailiffs cost councils and households a total of £196 million. The vast majority of that is paid by households in financial difficulty. That’s the equivalent of bailiffs charging 56p for every £1 they collected.

Bailiffs make people’s debts worse…

Kareem has multiple physical and mental health conditions.  He lives alone.

He recently missed a payment of £13.56 for his council tax. 

He missed the payment because he was in hospital at the time for his mental health condition.

When Kareem returned home from hospital, his debt had grown to £325.56 due to court and bailiff charges.  This was 12 weeks after missing a small payment.

We also know that bailiffs regularly mistreat people while collecting debts…

Janice recently left her abusive partner and lives alone with her 7 year old child. She earns around £600 per month, has a payday loan, rent arrears and council tax arrears of £1,300. Her council referred this to bailiffs, who added additional charges.

The bailiff called Janice, saying he was waiting outside her house and would empty it of all belongings if she didn’t offer to pay £400 per month.  Janice felt very intimidated, so paid £50 and offered another £50 per week.

When Janice came to Citizens Advice, she was in tears. She felt she was coerced into paying money she didn’t have.  She is very worried about how she will pay her bills”

Households experience long lasting negative effects, councils only receive a fraction of what is owed to them, and both face financial costs as a result.

For more information or for help with Debt contact:

Citizens Advice Bournemouth Christchurch and Poole

Adviceline – 03444 111 444 open Monday to Friday 10am till 4pm

Or visit one of our advisers Face to Face at one of our drop in sessions – https://www.citizensadvicebcp.org.uk/get-advice/