North East Councils told to be less heavy handed over tax debt amid claims families are being left in fear

Councils have defended their use of bailiffs after a charity said “heavy handed” debt collection practices were leaving families – and more specifically children – in fear.

The Children’s Society said North-East local authorities had engaged bailiffs an estimated 51,800 times last year to recover council tax debts.

Meanwhile, Durham County Council said it had referred 22,306 council tax warrants to bailiffs, although this was over the last three years rather than a 12 month period.

Bailiffs, typically employed by private companies, have the power to enforce non-payment of debts by seizing property from homeowners.

The Children’s Society said in just 14 days families could go from missing a council tax payment to facing court proceedings and action from bailiffs.

It described incidents in which children had answered the phone to a debt collector or been present when they had called in person, leaving them frightened and unable to sleep as a result.

One mother, who was among 4,500 parents surveyed for the charity’s research, said: “My children knew mummy was stressed and there were strange people at the door wanting things.

“Most of the furniture got taken at that point.”

 The report published by charity said that more than one in ten families in the UK had experienced council tax debt.

It said three quarters of parents in this position had not been given help to find independent advice and local authorities were “rushing to penalise struggling families by demanding sudden, unrealistic” payments.

Matthew Reed, the charity’s chief executive, said:

“Far too many families are failed by their council when they fall behind with their council tax.”

Ian Fergusson, Durham County Council’s revenue and benefits manager, said:

“The use of bailiffs is always a last resort and the bailiffs that we use are highly trained to be respectful of council tax payers and their families at all times.

“We would encourage anyone who is experiencing financial difficulties to contact us to discuss the issues they are facing.”

 A spokeswoman for Darlington Borough Council added:
“The council has a contracted enforcement agency to collect unrecovered council tax debts, but will only refer debts to them when all other methods of recovery have been exhausted.

“In every case the council will always try to come to an arrangement first.

“Our enforcement agents have a strict code of conduct that does not allow any of their staff to discuss a debt with a child.”

Source – Northern Echo, 26 Mar 2015

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