Council Tax debt collection advice - misguided or misaligned?
According to the data provided, an estimated 2.2 million households are behind on their council tax. It is suggested that the government needs to help councils collect debt efficiently and I could not agree more. But the link made between current shortcomings and the role of collection and enforcement professionals is not a balanced view.
The Citizens Advice document ‘Council tax debt collection isn't efficient or effective’, implies that whilst instruction rates are increasing every year, enforcement agents are not providing a comparable upturn in collection because they are ineffective. This is not an accurate assessment and neither does it acknowledge the reality of the current sector approach where ethics and effectiveness are being properly balanced. In addition, improved identification of vulnerability results in more referrals back to clients, which impacts these figures, but for the right reasons.
A more realistic assessment also provides alternative interpretations for many of the figures included. The document shares findings that ‘bailiffs failed to collect an average of £2.5million per council’ and that in total ‘failed to collect over £790 million’ over the past year. It would be remiss of me not to take on board these numbers, but no consideration has been given to the importance of what has been successfully collected, or that successful collection rates are anticipated to improve further as investment in technology and data analytics continues to rise. There is no suggestion made of an alternative that guarantees better than, or even maintains, current collection levels of council tax debt.
In the last year, Bristow & Sutor has successfully remitted £88m to our clients. That’s enough to invest in training for over 1250 new nurses.
Our ratio of high collection rates and low complaints clearly indicates that the process is effective when handled and held to a high standard. We continually invest in directly employed enforcement agents as this guarantees that we retain full responsibility and accountability. Our workforce is trackable, closely monitored and trained to the highest level.
Citizens Advice also declares that bailiffs are an expensive solution but what would the expenditure be for councils who would have to find a successful way to take this on themselves? There are already over a thousand legal statutory obligations placed upon councils in areas such as housing, public health, children’s services and adult social care. Local authorities cannot gamble on unproven alternatives when funding levels are at stake.
It is also somewhat disingenuous to suggest all enforcement agent firms ‘consistently do a bad job at collecting council tax’ and collect ‘just 30% of debt they were sent’ but in equal measure, chastise the industry for mistreating debtors. The reality is measures of effectiveness could be higher, but any ethical or responsible enforcement agent must consider the vulnerability, mental health and well-being of those in debt. Finding the balance between who to collect from and who not to is an essential part of the process. What would these results look like should this be accounted for?
There are two isolated incidents provided in the Citizens Advice document that quite rightly raise significant questions into correct procedure and practice. Any actions that involve intimidation, coercion or mean to capitalise on ill-health are clearly abhorrent and do not reflect the standards or merits of the vast majority of enforcement agents. At Bristow & Sutor, our upheld complaints figure against total cases is just 0.06% and the number of complaints we have received has reduced further and further every year since 2016.
Supporting truly vulnerable debtors is essential, but so is pursuing those who simply do not feel obliged to adhere to the same laws as everyone else. Council tax debt collection does not have to push people into further debt if every opportunity is given to resolve what is outstanding and every case is treated individually with dignity and respect.
The LGSCO has also reported that since the introduction of reforms, in 132 decisions involving enforcement action, only 27% of cases saw the enforcement agent at fault. In the other cases the local authority was deemed at fault. These are small numbers but support the theory that failures should not simply be attributed to enforcement agents.
Councils that work with enforcement agent firms are not ineffective or inefficient as the Citizens Advice document suggests. We believe that our model, operating with a directly employed, accountable and well managed workforce is a sound one for success. Engaging with experienced and ethical enforcement agent firms, which consider the vulnerable and invest in a trained workforce, will not only produce positive future results but may nullify some misconceptions too.