Money advice experts are calling for a change in the law to protect vulnerable people being locked up for council tax debts. Free debt advice service PayPlan and the Institute of Money Advisers (IMA) have joined forces to campaign for an end to the ‘legal anomaly’ that gives courts the power to imprison householders for up to three months if they do not pay what they owe.
Council tax debt is not a crime but magistrates in England and Wales can and do still send some people with council tax arrears to prison.
The campaign coincides with a report published by PayPlan and the IMA at the Money Advice Liasion Group annual conference, highlighting the negative impact of court action on families and individuals. In the report, figures obtained via a Freedom of Information request show that 99 out of 279 local authorities took court action for imprisonment against 4,817 people in 2016/17 – a rise of more than 10 percent compared to 2012/13.
Topping the list was Bradford Metropolitan Council, which launched court proceedings against 969 people, resulting in 18 being jailed. In second place, committing 14 people to prison was the Vale of Glamorgan Council. Coventry City Council was the second biggest user of court action for imprisonment recording 156 cases and five prison sentences.
Alistair Chisholm, Head of Advice Sector Policy and Partnerships at PayPlan, is urging councils to think twice about dishing out tough penalties to those already experiencing severe hardship. “Court action and the threat of prison are deeply distressing for the most vulnerable householders, who believe they have been unfairly lumped together with criminals. Each day, our advisers speak to callers who find themselves in a difficult situation because of relationship breakdowns, illness or unemployment, or a combination of these factors. In most cases, there is no lawful reason to jail someone – but even the threat can be very damaging. While the number of imprisonments has actually dropped since 2009/10, the threat of imprisonment is being more widely used.”
“Receiving court letters, let alone having to find legal advice and stand before magistrates, is terrifying and completely out of proportion when no offence has been committed. Many people struggle to plug the gap between their income and their bills, and as a result council tax debt is a growing problem across the country. Threats of imprisonment is not the right answer to this problem.”
“England and Wales are currently lagging behind Scotland, Northern Ireland and other parts of Europe, where non-payment of local taxes does not lead to a prison sentence. There are also massive regional differences in the number of cases brought to court in England and Wales, suggesting a lack of consistency across the system.”
Robert Wilson, Chief Executive of the Institute of Money Advisers, said “Imprisonment serves “little purpose” because the debt still remains at the end. Instead of being supported with realistic payment plans, our members report that too often people are being penalised with court fees and harsh collection activity by their local council. Imprisonment does not clear their debt – in fact, it usually increases it further. Putting people in prison makes it harder for them to make payments and can cause chaos in their work and family life. On top of that, tax payers also have to meet the costs of prison.
“As well as action by government and local councils, we need improved training for magistrates and court staff. Dealing with the growing number of people who have serious money problems requires expertise. Debt is complicated, and officials need an informed, professional understanding of the realities of living with financial difficulty. We would like to see the courts and the Ministry of Justice working more closely with money advisers”.
The PayPlan and IMA report was officially published at the Money Advice Liaison Group (MALG) Conference, an industry event held in London on 27 November.