Aggressive tactics used by some local authorities in collecting council tax debt is pushing struggling families even further into the red, a damning new report from Citizens Advice reveals.
The report highlights how some councils in England add extra charges, deploy bailiffs and pursue legal action before attempting to arrange manageable repayment plans with debtors.
Citizens Advice surveyed more than 1,000 people in England, with more than half (54%) saying the tactics used by councils had made it more difficult to pay council tax debt.
A shocking 71% reported extra charges being added to the debt and 48% had been visited by bailiffs. Only 30% were offered an affordable way to repay monies owed.
Worryingly, nearly half of those surveyed (46%) said councils had stopped allowing them to pay in monthly installments and were instead told to pay any remaining debt in full.
Citizens Advice highlights the experience of one person whose council tax debt of just £27 mushroomed to a whopping £417 after the council added court and bailiff costs.
The charity’s research also found that 65% of those surveyed were in work, 56% had been forced to cut back on food and heating and 26% had even sold or pawned personal belongings to help clear their debt.
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Some councils are too quick to crackdown on people falling behind on council tax.
“Of course it’s right people should repay their council tax – but calling in bailiffs, adding on extra charges or forcing someone to pay the rest of the year’s council tax bill in one lump sum can make the situation worse for everyone.
“Some councils have developed much fairer approaches to collecting debt and as a result get money back much faster.
“Even simple steps, like improving communication and offering a realistic repayment plan, can ease the strain on debtors and ensure councils get what they’re owed.
“It is really important councils review their debt collection practices to make sure they are helping people to overcome their debt problems rather than making their financial problems worse. ”
Citizens advice is also calling on councils to promote the availability of hardship funds and encourage those with council tax debt to seek professional debt advice.