Citizens Advice has responded to Chris Daw QC’s report (published by the Social Market Foundation) on scrapping imprisonment for council tax arrears in England.

In his paper, Daw sets out his argument for an end to laws allowing for the imprisonment of people with council tax debts in England. The report summary says that around 100 people each year are jailed for non-payment. Daw argues that this is damaging to those imprisoned and to wider public trust in the justice system. Those jailed are poor and vulnerable and include such as women fleeing domestic abuse. Because custodial sentences imposed for non-payment of council tax are a matter of civil, not criminal, law, defendants do not have the right to a jury trial or to legal aid.

Only 10% of those committed between 2011-2017 ended up in prison; meaning the law merely results in high administrative cost (paid for by the taxpayer) and provides limited evidence in its effectiveness in terms of deterrence.

The use of this law is unevenly distributed between councils, with only around 15% of English councils using it; many have abandoned its use while a handful make extensive use of it. Daw’s report sets out how ministers could issue an executive order changing the law and bring England into line with the rest of the UK, where custodial terms for non-payment have been abolished.

In response, the Citizens Advice research published in April 2019 shows aggressive collection added half a billion pounds in fees to people’s council tax debts in 2016/17.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said “Outdated regulations push local authorities to collect council tax arrears aggressively. Threatening imprisonment, or sending people to prison in England, undermines efforts to make debt collection less punitive. The same regulations also mean after one missed monthly payment, people can become liable for their full year’s bill, pushing people into further debt.”

“The government needs to fundamentally reform the regulations governing how local authorities collect debts to give councils more flexibility to help people get their finances back on track.“

Earlier this year, the government announced it will review the way council tax debt is collected. It should use its review to fundamentally reform the rules governing how local authorities collect debts by amending the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992

Council tax arrears is the most common debt problem Citizens Advice helps people with. On average our clients in council tax debt have just £14 a month disposable income.

Last year, our local services around England and Wales helped more than 95,000 people struggling to make their council tax payments.

The national charity estimates over £560 million in fees were added to people’s council tax debt in 2016/17 alone. This includes £300 million of bailiff fees which is particularly concerning as some of these fees have to be paid by the person in debt before any council tax arrears can be recovered by the local authority. That is equivalent to adding nearly £278 to every households’ debt that was in council tax arrears

The SMF report can be viewed here.