Local authorities in England referred at least 280,000 households to bailiffs over council tax debt in the first year of the pandemic, and asked for more than 115,000 people to have their benefits deducted to clear their arrears, the Observer can reveal.
Councils adopted widely differing approaches to council tax arrears as the economy froze and unemployment rose during 2020-21, with some councils suspending all debt-recovery action while others continued to pursue thousands of households.
Figures sourced under the Freedom of Information Act show councils passed 281,380 households to bailiffs in 2020-21 – with at least 93,031 of cases relating to council tax arrears that built up during the course of that year, rather than previous years.
Bailiffs can visit people’s homes to try to collect the money, and even take belongings if they are collecting an unpaid debt – although such action was suspended during the first five months of the pandemic.
Councils requested “attachments on benefits” for 117,492 council tax payers, deducting money from benefits to clear council tax arrears. The figures cover about two-thirds of England’s “lower-tier” – district or borough – councils.
Anela Anwar, chief executive of the anti-poverty charity Z2K, said: “These statistics lay bare the devastating impact that council tax debts have on hundreds of thousands of people. The default position for too many councils seems to be to recover debt from benefits rather than negotiating with the person to agree an affordable repayment plan.
“On top of that, the postcode lottery of council tax reduction schemes, combined with punitive recovery powers, means thousands of people end up in a well of debt that it is impossible to climb out of. We urge this government to reinstate a fully funded national system of council tax support, which will help protect families caught in the grip of poverty.”
Council tax bills have increased sharply in recent years, with the government allowing councils to raise rates by up to 5% a year to plug some of the gaps created by austerity, particularly in adult care services.
This, together with the economic crisis sparked by the pandemic, drove people into council tax debt. Research published by Citizens Advice in January estimated that more than 3.5 million people were behind on council tax, of whom just over half had not been in arrears at the start of the pandemic.
Franklyn Jaffier, who lives in west London, learned that his universal credit payments were being cut last summer by about £20 a month to repay council tax arrears dating back to 2019, as well as £58 a month to repay a universal credit advance loan.
His payments are also subject to the benefit cap, and last winter his benefit was stopped entirely for three months because he had supposedly been overpaid disability benefit by £300 – just a week after his disability benefit payments started. He is now living, after paying rent, on around £230 a month, which amounts to less than £60 a week.
“I’m really struggling,” he told the Observer. He was given a Chromebook by Camden council’s digital inclusion project so that he could do an online course in data analytics, but has had to pawn it in exchange for a loan.
“This is the level of destitution that I’m having to actually try to live through – without jumping off a bridge. I’m not a person who was ever used to being on the benefit system like that – I have always worked. What I am seeing here is a complete nightmare in how the system works against people.”
Bradford requested the most attachments on benefits in 2020-21 – 10,417 benefit claimants – all relating to debts that pre-dated the pandemic.
A spokesperson said Bradford council gave all low-income families a council tax holiday for three months during the pandemic, with no collection activity for any taxpayers during that time. Low-income families also had £100 awarded against their tax bills. “As we came out of the first lockdown we had to catch up on our collection activity and, in common with other authorities, we issued a number of attachment requests to those with arrears dating from before the pandemic started,” the spokesperson said.
Reflecting the dilemma cash-strapped councils face, overall council tax arrears across England rose by nearly a quarter in 2020-21.