The number of people in St Helens up in court for failure to pay their council tax has seen a startling rise over the last 12 months, new figures reveal.
More than 9,327 court summonses have been iisued for the 2013/14 financial year, already surpassing the previous year’s figure of 7,482.
The increase has prompted fears that residents are struggling to balance their books since changes to the welfare system, some of which were introduced in April.
Figures obtained by The St Helens Reporter reveal that since May 2013, 9,327 court summonses have been issued to those falling behind on payments.
The welfare changes – including the Universal Credit system and the bedroom tax – were introduced in a bid by ministers to reduce spending, make work pay for people on benefits and streamline the system.
Council chiefs say the increase the increase was a result of more people failing behind with payments changes to the benefits systems.
A council spokeswoman said: “Cuts in our funding mean the council cannot provide the same level of support under the new Council Tax Reduction
Scheme – which replaced Council Tax Benefit as part of the Government’s welfare reforms.
“As a result there has been an increase in the number of households liable to pay council tax – now getting on for 10,000 across the borough.
“We are acutely aware of the plight of some residents – who may be asked to pay additional council tax or pay council tax for the first time. To help those in difficulties we have increased the range of payment options available including spreading payments over 12 months, weekly, fortnightly or four weekly - in addition to the statutory ten monthly instalments.
“We’ve also introduced ‘softer’ recovery stages for those who previously did not pay anything - by sending additional discretionary reminders prior to court action taking place.
“The council has provided additional resources for money and debt advice via the Citizens Advice Bureau.
“If you have problems paying your council tax you should contact the council as soon as possible. People who are experiencing financial hardship or debt problems can seek advice from one of the ‘free’ advice agencies, who can assist individuals in budgeting and prioritising outstanding debts.
“The decision to take anyone to court is always the last resort. And it is only when all avenues for payment have been explored that this happens.”