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.
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.