Hackney Council sent bailiffs to more than 1,000 benefit claimants for missing council tax payments last year, new figures have revealed.
Over 9,000 recipients of Council Tax Support – a benefit reducing the amount of council tax that people on low incomes are liable for – fell behind with their council tax payments during the past year, of which 1,115 were referred to bailiffs.
The figures were laid out in a new report by Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) and Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).
Alison Garnham, chief executive of CPAG, said: “Families are saying their budgets just won’t stretch to cover the tax. Worse, many are facing court costs piled on top of a debt they couldn’t meet in the first place.
“This research shows that Londoners previously deemed too poor to pay are taking the hit as a result of council tax localisations.”
In the past central government administered the Council Tax Support benefit. But in 2013 the responsibility was devolved to local authorities, and the budget was cut by 10 per cent.
To plug the gap, many councils began demanding minimum payments from working age residents who had previously been deemed too poor to pay. Hackney now requires all residents, regardless of income, to pay at least 15 per cent of their council tax bill.
If a resident on Council Tax Support fails to pay, the council can issue a court summons and deploy bailiffs to recover the costs.
Joanna Kennedy, Chief Executive of Z2K, called it “perverse” that local authorities should charge council tax to anyone on low income. She said: “Although it may not seem much to some people, those families we support simply can’t afford the £5 or £10 a week these councils are charging.
“The end result is either cutting down on essentials and going hungry or fail to pay and risk having an aggressive bailiff knocking on your door. That’s not a choice any family should face.”
A Hackney Council spokesperson said: “The council does not take the decision to use Enforcement Agents lightly. The council will have contacted non-payers a number of times to try to avoid court action. As a minimum, the customer will have received a bill, at least one reminder notice and a final notice before the council sends a summons.”
Yasmin Alam is chief executive of East End Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), which represents Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets branches. She said enquiries at Hackney CAB about council tax arrears have increased by 12 per cent since last year. “In our experience, Hackney Council is happy to discuss repayment plans and other ways for people to repay their debts even at enforcement stage, when bailiffs have been called out.”
But she added: “We’d like to see the council agreeing more repayment arrangements before enforcement action is taken wherever possible. To give the best chance of this, we encourage anyone experiencing difficulties in paying their council tax to seek help and advice as soon as possible.”
Independent advice and information is available to local residents at Hackney CAB (300 Mare Street, London E8 1HE. 020 8525 6350).