Council tax collection practices working for no one

Citizens Advice has warned that households struggling to pay their council tax are being pushed into further debt as outdated regulations see councils resort to bailiffs to collect arrears.

New research from the service says that the regulations governing the collection of council tax in England limit the ability of local councils to collect debts in a fair way. Instead the regulations make it harder for people to get their finances back on track.

Currently, when people miss a single council tax payment they automatically became liable for the full year’s bill. The rules also push councils to use the court process to collect arrears, and do not set out what good collection looks like.  

The national charity has also found that bailiffs cost 53p for every £1 they recovered. Most of these costs are paid by people in financial difficulty. This is money that could otherwise be used to pay back arrears. Additionally, bailiffs failed to collect an average of £2.5 million per council last year and over the last five years, on average, bailiffs only collected 30 per cent of the arrears they were sent.

Citizens Advice is calling on the next government to reform these rules as part of the charity’s election manifesto. It says many cash-strapped councils are resorting to using bailiffs which its evidence shows is both ineffective and expensive.

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Council tax debt is now worryingly common but the collection system is broken. It doesn’t work for the people who are driven further into debt and it doesn’t work for councils or the taxpayer who are seeing millions of pounds go to waste each year.

“The next government has a real opportunity to fix the outdated regulations that push councils to use ineffective collection practices and protect people from spiralling further into debt when they fall behind on their council tax. It must give councils the powers to take a more flexible approach to collecting arrears and put an end to punitive processes such as charging a full year’s bill after a single payment is missed.”

Citizens Advice helps 86,000 people in England with council tax issues. In 2018, an estimated 2.2 million households in England were behind on their council tax bill.