Wealden defends ‘sensitive’ approach to debt collection and use of bailiffs

Wealden District Council offices, Hailsham SUS-170401-214743008
Wealden District Council offices, Hailsham SUS-170401-214743008

An East Sussex council has defended its use of bailiffs, saying it adopts a ‘sensitive, appropriate and successful’ approach to debt collection.

In a statement released by Wealden District Council, the council says it ‘operates a sensitive policy to pursuing debt’ which it considers to be ‘best practice’.   

The comments come as the authority’s cabinet put forward recommendations to alter its council tax reduction scheme, at a meeting last month.

Commenting on the council’s debt collection arrangements, a Wealden spokesman said: “Last year Wealden raised 2,600 liability orders against residents who failed to pay their council tax.

“Out of this 2,600, only 232 have reached the stage where enforcement agents got directly involved.

“By carefully working with and advising the remaining 2,368 clients, we are helping them deal with their debts in ways that suit their situation.  

“Of the 232 cases passed to the enforcement agents, 113 were returned back to the council recovery team either because they were being paid or because the enforcement agents’ advice was; that these people were vulnerable, the creation of a long term payment plan should be agreed or that an alternative method of payment would be more suitable.

“Enforcement agents are still working with the remaining 119 clients to find a solution.  Removing goods will only be considered as a last resort.

“Our approach is sensitive, appropriate and successful.  It is completely different to the usual portrayal of ‘rogue bailiffs’.”

The spokesman said the council recommends Wealden residents who find themselves struggling with debt to contact one of the following groups: Wealden CAB; Stepchange; National Debt Line; or Business Debtline.

The statement comes as councillors prepare to decide whether to make changes to Wealden’s council tax reduction scheme.

According to council documents, the proposed scheme would remain broadly the same as current arrangements, but would see case-by-case means-testing replaced with a new income band system.

The council says this will make it the scheme simpler and cheaper to run alongside the new Universal Credit system, which often sees people’s income change several times within a year.

While the proposed changes are expected to make the scheme simpler, they would also see the income-based discount capped after two children – meaning larger families will no longer receive extra assistance.

For example, a family with four children earning £300 per week would receive the same council tax discount as a family with two children who earn the same amount.

Any residents receiving a ‘passported benefit’  – such as Income Support and Jobseeker’s Allowance – will continue to have the maximum council tax discount of 80 per cent if the changes are adopted.

Councillors are expected to make a decision on whether or not to adopt the proposed changes at full council meeting in the near future.

Earlier this year, MPs condemned the ‘overzealous’ use of bailiffs by local councils in a highly-critical report.

The report, published by the House of Commons Treasury Committee in July, found that local authorities in the UK had passed 2.3m debt cases to bailiffs in 2016.

In their report, committee members described this approach as ‘over-zealous’ and called on councils to reform their practices.

The report said: “Arrears to local authorities are growing. These debts are often pursued over-zealously, and with routine recourse to bailiffs.

“In addition to local government, the committee has heard reports that central government can take an uncompromising approach to debt collection.

“The public sector should be leading by example in their treatment of the most financially vulnerable; but the current approach risks driving them into further difficulty.”