“I stay away from my flat to avoid the bailiffs” – the joys of being hunted down for council tax

Happy New Year, all.

Am kicking things off with a story about council tax, people who can’t afford to pay it, bailiffs who keep bashing on doors to demand money that people continue not to have and the almost-unusable council systems that people must use to try and sort things out.

Happy days.

Just before Christmas, I rang Redbridge council on behalf of a young woman who lived in Redbridge a couple of years ago. She was moved there from another borough to escape domestic violence. She lives in another borough now.

To get down to it: the councils in all three of the boroughs that this young woman has lived in over recent years have chased her – through the courts and with bailiffs – for council tax that she can’t pay.

This situation regularly spiralled out of control last year. The demands for money kept coming. Bailiff and court costs increased (and continue to do so). The bailiffs turned up. Towards the end of last year, visits from bailiffs became a regular feature in this young woman’s life. “I hide in the bedroom when they come…or I try not to be at home,” she told me. Imagine that. She spent the Christmas break staying away from her flat to avoid bailiffs. God only knows how many people live this way.

Point is – the thing is futile. It so often is. This young woman has repayment plans, but has run into trouble with these for the simple reason that she has no money. This is the key point to keep in mind. If people have no money, they have no money. Harassment by councils and bailiffs doesn’t change this basic fact. Neither does it magically improve people’s incomes. Councils can demand council tax and bailiffs can hammer on people’s doors, but we all keep finding ourselves back at the beginning. People who don’t have money can’t pay money out. They certainly can’t pay debts which increase out of sight with court and bailiff costs (there’s something called a compliance stage fee of £75 whacked onto this young woman’s paperwork. God knows what that is). They fall behind in payment plans, especially when things go wrong. This young woman signed up for Universal Credit, but waited weeks for money, as people do. She missed her council debt repayments. A friend gave the bailiffs some money before Christmas to put them off, but they’re back. You wonder how it’s all going to end.

Sometimes, I like to ask councils how they think it’s all going to end. Just before Christmas, I rang Redbridge’s council tax department to talk about this sort of situation in a general sense. Mainly, I wanted to see if there was room for a civilised or imaginative (don’t laugh) discussion about options for people who don’’t pay because they can’t pay, etc – options other than repayment plans they can’t meet, threats, bailiffs and jail for non-payment of council tax, that was.

The (very) short answer to this was No. I called Redbridge. The officer who answered that day wasn’t great (although we will give the council a few points for answering the phone at all. I didn’t spend ages in a queue, which was refreshing). Certainly, there wasn’t a lot of thinking outside the box going on.

I wanted to know if the council would be open to a constructive discussion about people who couldn’t meet council tax payments, or repayment plans that had been set up – people who were at the end of the line and harassed by bailiffs. I was trying to find out if there was any flexibility around at all. You can demand money from people all you like, but there comes a time where it’s obvious that payment is not a starter. What’s the big plan after that? Do you send bailiffs round every day? Do you chuck parents with young children in jail?

The officer said something along the lines of No, we couldn’t talk about options in a general way. The young woman would have to call the bailiffs to put them off. The problem was not with the council. The problem was with the bailiffs. I explained that this woman was terrified of the bailiffs and didn’t want to call them any more. The officer said “she’ll have to.” I said something like “hang on.”

This went round for longer than I found strictly useful. Ditto for the officer, I think. Ultimately, the officer gave me the number of the council’s recovery team and told me to take my story there. I rang that number and got a message which said that the lines were busy and to call back later. I finished the calls having achieved nothing. Since then, the young woman has received another bailiffs’ notice. On and on it goes.

I post this to draw your attention to a couple of key points.

The first point is that trying to lever money out of people who don’t have it is sadistic and pointless in the extreme. Adding costs to their debts is even more so. There has to be an endpoint somewhere. That endpoint should not be jail or a criminal conviction.

The second point is that the council systems that people are supposed to use to solve these situations are doing my head in. Tom Crewe wrote a very good article at the end of last year about the destruction of local government. This is what such destruction looks like at the user end. You get officers who can only repeat key phrases from the script, a system which is completely inflexible and phone numbers you can’t use. You also get very defensive councils. Local authorities fall over themselves to show they have followed policy to the letter. Actually, I couldn’t give a damn about that. All that matters is that we’re in a situation where people’s problems can’t be solved.

As an update: I did ring Redbridge back this week and got an officer who said the young woman could submit a letter outlining the reasons why her debt should be written off. I was warned, though, that debts could only be written off in very exceptional circumstances. Can’t imagine what those might be.

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17 thoughts on ““I stay away from my flat to avoid the bailiffs” – the joys of being hunted down for council tax

  1. I completely agree with you Kate.
    Council tax is so unfair
    but hiring bailiffs to hunt down those who owe money is even more unfair even though the council’s are entitled to get what is owed to them.

  2. “I was warned, though, that debts could only be written off in very exceptional circumstances. Can’t imagine what those might be.”

    She’s probably expected to write from the grave.

  3. My friend and fellow Green Party member Noel Lynch told a tale a while ago that a Tower Hamlets Council staff member had left his office and spoken to demonstrators against the imposition of Council Tax on people too poor to pay Council Tax. He thanked them for their protest, as he did not want to have to carry out such a policy.

    Camden Council has since belatedly learned that getting bailiffs to impose Council Tax on people too poor to pay Council Tax is uneconomical. Unfortunately, Haringey Council and Tottenham Magistrates Court have not, despite the Council Tax protest of Revd Paul Nicolson. Universal Credit at £73.10 pw is so low poverty, malnutrition & debt related mental & physical ill-health inevitable.

    Wembley Matters blogger Martin Francis and his readership commenters have criticised Brent Council’s consultation on increasing Council Tax that does not consider reinstating 100% Council Tax reduction for those too poor to pay Council Tax.

    Yet East London councils’ Council Tax levying including previously exemplary Tower Hamlets, the Redbridge Council cited in this blog post, and Waltham Forest give great cause for concern, as ‘justice for vulnerable debtors’ charity Z2K argues.

    While councils seem keen to impose Council Tax on people too poor to pay Council Tax, the question should be raised, what ‘services’ are these poor people and Council Tax payers in general paying for? “Services should support rather than restrict the human rights and civil rights of service users.” — Supporting People: Towards a person-centred approach

    • I have lived in the London of Brent since birth,
      and one thing I am accustomed to is standards of housing, street cleaning etc etc remaining low,
      while things like council tax are increased.
      Also public consultations are merely designed to make the council appear to be considerate in the eyes of the residents,
      but even if the majority of residents oppose an increase in council tax,
      the council merely delay the inevitable and try to convince the residents that they doing it for their benefit,
      when really they know that it was just a matter of time before an increase would be imposed onto the residents regardless of their financial status.
      And to add insult to injury,
      the council then point the finger of blame at central government, and say that they left them with no choice other than to increase the cost of council tax.
      And in the meantime, car owning visitors to Brent are also used as a convenient means of filling the supposedly dwindling coffers of Brent council,
      by forcing them to pay a ridiculous amount of money each time they visit family and friends.
      And the council expects people to believe that this is necessary in order to deal with air pollution and abuse of car parking spaces by people who park their cars there all day in order to avoid paying to pay in pay and display bays.
      To say I feel sorry for the residents of Brent is an understatement.

  4. I too agree totally Kate, further this situation is rolled out again and again via top up rents, unmanageable fuel and credit debt etc. The point of issuing anyone on welfare with fines is futile and benefits no one…. but the bailiffs; this is where legislation needs rewriting and urgently, before we witness even more debtor suicides

  5. Though not a solution in all cases, anyone with total debt of less than £5,000 can apply to their County Court for an Administration Order, about the only debt that can’t usually be included is rent arrears, but Council Tax can be included, as well as untility debts, (gas, water, electricity etc) and other debts.

    People can apply for these themselves, or, (more advisble) go through their local CAB.

    In getting an Administration Order approved, it may involve having to appear before a judge, but this isn’t at all like criminal court, and the process is not intimidating or unpleasant, and if granted will stop all those harrassing visits from bailiffs and phone calls from other included creditors. Best to apply for what is called a ‘composition’ order, which limits the amount of time that you will be paying off the debt, (in other words, you might not have to pay it all) and these last for a maximum of three years.

    Monthly payments will vary, depending on the amount of income you have, but the form you need to fill in has a list for you to include all of your weekly/monthly expenditure for essentials like food and rent etc. Be honest is the key here, as your monthly payments to the court will be calculated on what you can afford, but they are unlikely to be more than about £5 a month anyway – and certainly most judges seem to be very sympathetic indeed to those trying to eke an existence on £73.10 a week.

    Social housing providers should be more on the case on things like this, but as we know, most of them would rather be trying to curry favour with the government through running jobclubs and kick_ the_ poor_ whilst _their _down schemes, as well as jacking up their already unaffordable rents every year.

    • Thanks for this. I’d be interested to know if any social housing providers do help with these things – I know some do unpleasant and invasive debt advice etc but I’m guessing that’s not quite the thing…the issue too with a lot of people I speak with is that they are in private rental. You’re on your own there. People would like social housing but they are not going to get it.

      • It wouldn’t surprise me if there were one or two social housing providers out there who do remember their radical roots and do provide that kind of help, but there won’t be many Most are too concerned with pleasing the government, and it shows, they really ought to be far more terrified of their tenants than the government, but it seems they are more scared of the government.

        I used to rent my flat from a social housing provider that used to be tenant controlled, and the very fact that all the staff knew that in theory the tenant shareholders could replace all of them, if they had a mind to, made a huge difference to the attitudes of the staff.

        Sadly that status changed when, sometime in the mid 90s it was decided that tenant controlled housing associations didn’t exactly fit in with government policy, and various ruses were then found to force a takeover by a housing association more in keeping with government policy, so now I’m faced with situations where I hear mutterings about ‘anti-social behaviour’ if I so much as politely challenge them if they don’t happen to like what I’m saying, or refusing to do – the same HA also tried to accuse a friend, who was suffering acute mental health issues at the time of anti-social behaviour when it should have been so obvious that something was seriously wrong with someone who had previously been an exemplary tenant.

        I’ve come to the conclusion that most housing associations have become far too big, and far too distant from tenants, and that they should all be broken up into smaller associations of no more than a thousand tenancies and also that tenants control them. I know that pigs will probably fly before that happens, as all politicians of all political persuasions are terrified that ordinary people should actually get their hands on the control levers of society, but there we are, I hope my sentiments strike a chord with you out there.

  6. Pingback: “I stay away from my flat to avoid the bailiffs” – the joys of being hunted down for council tax | Benefit tales

  7. I don’t know if this is the same everywhere in UK

    I was (& still am) being chased by Waveney District Council for 12 years council tax… I have phoned their collections department many times & offered a payment plan that I can afford. EVERY time, they have told me that they require a payment of more than I offered, & then proceeded to ask for my bank details in order to set up a direct debit. At this point is where I explain to them that I will not now (or ever) give them access to MY bank account, & they do not actually get to tell ne how much of my money I will pay. To cut a long story short, they innevitably passed my account to bailliffs – The thing to know about bailliffs is that they really do not have as much power as they would have you believe… If they cannot gain “Peaceable Entry” to your property (ie through an unlocked door/ open window, or an invitation to ‘come in’), much like vampires they simply cannot legally enter your property. I kept them on the doorstep, refused to part with any personal information other than my name (unless they are trying to guess how much longer I will live, my date of birth is none of their business; my National Insurance Number is irrelevant to the debt & again none of their business) & I will not sign anything. Yes, of course they kept sending me letters & stacking their charges on top, all I which I simply ignored & filed under ‘R’ (Rubbish). Eventually my outstanding bills were all returned to W.D.C who once again contacted me, but only with the original unpaid balance (no bailliffs fees).
    It’s been a continual circle like this because regardless of all the BS + threats, W.D.C always refuse the amount I offer & I cannot afford to raise my offer (even if I could, I would not! Simply out of principle now)

  8. If she can avoid the bailiffs for long enough, or send the bailiffs a letter stating vulnerabilities (with proof, prescriptions or whatever) they will send it back to the council. That way she won’t have to pay any bailiffs fees

  9. Pingback: I stay away from my flat to avoid the bailiffs the joys of being hunted down for council tax - Real Media - The News You Don't See

  10. A real bailiff acts for the courts under warrant and can force entry. An individual may have ID to show they are qualified as a bailiff, but if they are trying to get peaceful entry they are just a third-party interloper. Write to the debt collector and remove implied right of access. If they turn up again call police and report trespass. Don’t ever give money to a debt collector – that can be considered as performance on a debt and implies an agreement to a contract with them

    Best course of action I can suggest is make official offer to council. This site explains process in more depth – http://www.officialoffermadesimple.com/
    In simple terms, pay as much as you can as often as you can. If you cannot pay anything, apologise and explain that in writing.

    If council does try to go to court is usually alleging non-payment. Just proving that you have paid even the smallest amount makes their claim false and might get case thrown out and costs rejected.
    Even if court is not helpful, there is a valid defence based on “substantive performance”, but would need to learn contract law principles to make a good case.

  11. Pingback: Councils, housing associations and the DWP are crushing people with debt | Kate Belgrave

  12. I am currently in a 6 year battle with my council and bailiffs, for errors they have admitted to. I would love to share my story with you. I am currently awaiting a date for court.

  13. Pingback: Is there too much focus on student loans, credit card and other “middle class” debt? | Kate Belgrave

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