A presentation on the Stop the Knock publication and a briefing on the current practices of the Council with respect to the use of civil enforcement agents to inform the scope of any further work to be commissioned by the overview and scrutiny committee if deemed necessary.
Motion submitted to Council on 28 November 2019 by Councillor Baxter
In 2018/19, South Kesteven used bailiff services on 2,115 occasions. Over 96% of these concerned overdue Council Tax payments while the remainder related to Business Rates. This figure has increased by 3% since 2016/17.
The use of bailiffs can be expensive and time-consuming for the council. It can also be very stressful for the debtors especially if they are already suffering financial hardship.
The Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs the National Debtline, recommends six steps for all lower-tier local authorities to implement in order to improve debt collection practice. More details are available at https://www.stoptheknock.org/
This motion recommends South Kesteven adopts the Six Steps (Currently the Council only has one of the six steps in place which is ‘step 2’ concerning referrals to free debt advice).
This Council resolves to:
1) make a clear public commitment to reduce the council’s use of bailiffs over time.
2) review the council’s signposting to free debt advice, including phone/online channels
3) adopt the Standard Financial Statement (SFS) to objectively assess affordability
4) put in place a formal policy covering residents in vulnerable circumstances
5) exempt council tax support recipients from bailiff action
6) sign the Council Tax Protocol and review the authority’s current practice against the ‘Supportive Council Tax Recovery’ toolkit
The detail implementation of the six steps above shall be the responsibility of the Rural and Communities OSC in collaboration with the relevant portfolio-holder.
The item had been placed on the agenda following a motion which was submitted to Council on 28th November 2019. Due to purdah no motions were debated at the November meeting and they were rolled over to the January meeting of Council. The Chairman of the Rural and Communities OSC agreed for the issue to go on the agenda for the next meeting of this Committee.
The Head of Customer Experience and IT gave a presentation to the meeting on the current practices in relation to debt collection for Council Tax and Non Domestic Rates (NDR) both of which were governed by a legal framework.
In South Kesteven there were in the region of 64,800 dwellings and 4,600 non domestic rate properties. During 17/18 in year enforcement agents had been used on 2,044 occasions for Council Tax (3% of dwellings) and 71 occasions for NDR (2% of properties). There had been a 0.5% reduction from the previous year for Council Tax but a rise of 2.9% for NDR.
The Head of Customer Experience and IT then gave details of how officers dealt with customers in relation to enforcement agents. All officers were trained in how to deal with customers including where there was a vulnerability and the steps they could consider when dealing with an application. All officers were hands on and supportive and worked with individuals to try and find ways to make payments wherever possible including directing them to Citizens Advice or making appointments on their behalf. Once a debt was the subject of a liability order software was used to process each case with the most effective recovery option. Where no other option was considered appropriate, a notice letter was sent seeking payment or inviting the client to contact the Council. The instruction of enforcement agents was taken as a last resort after a manual check had been carried out. The manual check enabled officers to take a different recovery path if it was considered appropriate.
A case study was then given where a vulnerability was found by an enforcement agent who immediately ceased action and contacted the revenues and benefits team of his concerns. The revenues and benefits officer then contacted the relevant people (social services, wellbeing team, environmental services) to ensure the appropriate support was provided outside of her work hours to ensure the necessary support was in place. Without the intervention of the agent the resident’s circumstances may not have improved.
The “Stop the Knock” initiative and objectives came out of the Money Advice Trust, a charity run by the National Debtline that recommended six steps for lower tier authorities to implement in order to improve debt collection practices.
The six steps were;
1. Make a clear public commitment to reduce the council’s use of bailiffs over time.
2. Review the council’s signposting to free debt advice, including phone/online channels
3. Adopt the Standard Financial Statement (SFS) to objectively assess affordability
4. Put in place a formal policy covering residents in vulnerable circumstances
5. Exempt council tax support recipients from bailiff action
6. Sign the Council Tax Protocol and review the authority’s current practice against the ‘Supportive Council Tax Recovery’ toolkit
Each heading was then discussed, and the Committee informed what currently happened. The Head of Customer Experience and IT stated that currently officers did offer advice and where additional help and support could be found and residents were signposted accordingly. This information was reviewed regularly especially with the introduction of Universal Credit. Officers had developed their own income and expenditure form which they used to objectively assess affordability and this was reviewed frequently. As circumstances changed any policy on the definition of vulnerability needed to address both temporary or permanent vulnerability, there was no statutory definition of vulnerability. A vulnerable person’s guidance/policy had been drafted so it could be progressed through scrutiny. Council tax support recipients were not necessarily unable to pay their council tax, to some it was a choice whether or not to pay. Exempting recipients of CTS could lead to an equalities issue with other residents. The Supportive Council Tax Recovery toolkit had been signed up to by 61 authorities to date, however a local protocol with other local agencies may be more preferable to South Kesteven rather than a “one size” fits all document.
Members were reassured that South Kesteven was a caring council and that action was taken where possible to stop debt recovery.
The Member who had submitted the motion gave a brief background as to why he had brought it forward. From the figures circulated at least one referral was being made per week and he felt that if a clear commitment could be made to reduce the use of bailiffs this would reduce figures more.
Further discussion followed on protecting the vulnerable and the need to recognise when debt could become an issue. A behavioural response from the team was always sought wherever possible, open questions were asked to help obtain more information to enable officers to see what income and out goings applicants had. Officers had training so that they could see the whole picture and they took a broad view to include all aspects including Universal Credit. One Member asked if text messaging was used and it was stated that with the introduction of GDPR, applicants were asked how they wished to contacted both privately and publicly. It was confirmed that the Senior Revenues Officers did have named contacts at the Citizens Advice Bureau to enable appointments to be made on behalf of customers.
More discussion on Universal Credit, arrears and right offs and early interventions followed. The Cabinet Member for Finance confirmed that a lot of work was carried out in relation to debt recovery but there were always improvements to be made, contacting vulnerable people was one of them.
It was proposed that of the six initiatives before Members the Committee proposed that Cabinet made a clear public commitment to reduce the Council’s use of bailiffs overtime, that a formal policy covering residents in vulnerable circumstances was put in place and that a local Council Tax Protocol be developed with other local agencies such as CAB and adopted. On being put to the vote these were seconded and agreed.
The Rural and Communities OSC recommends that Cabinet:
1. Makes a clear public commitment to reduce the Council’s use of bailiffs over time.
2. Put in place a formal policy covering residents in vulnerable circumstances.
3. Develops and adopts a local Council Tax Protocol rather than the National Council Tax protocol.