Vulnerable people are not being identified by St Helens Council before being chased by bailiffs for council tax arrears, a new report has found.
Earlier this year a review was carried out by the council’s audit and financial monitoring overview and scrutiny panel into the collection of council tax arrears.
Two enforcement agents, Jacobs and Rundle & Co, are currently contracted to collect council tax arrears for the council.
Councillors spoke to officers from both enforcement agents, more commonly known as bailiffs, as part of the review.
The task group learnt that there is no clear definition of ‘vulnerable’ and each agency or organisation has its own description of what defines a person as vulnerable.
The report says that statistics are provided monthly to the council from both agencies, which clearly states which clients have been identified as vulnerable.
However, councillors learnt that the council does not supply any information regarding the person’s status when the cases are initially passed over to the bailiffs.
“The collection agencies the task group spoke to assured members that they work to the new guidelines and do all they can to help vulnerable people,” the report says.
“Members felt that vulnerable people struggling to pay their council tax bills should be clearly identified prior to the debt being referred to the collection agencies and that information should be shared at the beginning of the process.”
Labour’s Nova Charlton, who took part in the review, presented the information to the audit and financial monitoring overview and scrutiny panel.
She said that vulnerable people, and how the council identifies vulnerable people, was a common strand that ran throughout the review.
“We all understand that we have to collect council tax,” Coun Charlton said.
“We all understand that we need to pay it and we all understand the reasons why. But something that did come out was about how we do that with vulnerable people.
“It became apparent that agencies don’t share information.
“I think it’s really important that we work more closely with the enforcement agents and housing associations in terms of how we identify those people and how we support those people.”
Both Rundle & Co and Jacobs have dedicated welfare officers that handle vulnerable clients’ cases to ensure the process is as simple and clear as possible.
During the review, councillors were informed by both agencies that if a person is identified as being vulnerable then the case will be referred back to the council.
In previous years, St Helens Council used to have dedicated officers who would undertake benefit checks and help residents to complete application forms.
Due to the budget constraints this position was axed a few years ago.
Since April 2013, the council has been required to have a council tax reduction scheme for residents it considers to be in financially need.
During 2018-19 the scheme has provided £12.8 million support to approximately 16,000 households.
However, reductions in government funding meant the scheme cannot not provide the same level of support as was previously provided under the national council tax benefit scheme.
The report says people on low income are almost five times more likely to encounter problems.
Data supplied by St Helens Citizens Advice Service showed that they helped 17,787 people in St Helens in 2017-2018 with 46,745 issues.
This included £112,602 worth of local council tax debts. In 2018-2019 this figure increased to £228,813 – more than double the previous year.
Nearly three in four people said their problem affected their lives, causing anxiety and financial difficulty.
Two in every three clients had their problem solved, while four in five said the advice and help they received from Citizens Advice improved their lives, reducing stress and improving finances.
But while Citizens Advice is seeing significant rises in the number of people who are struggling with council tax debt, the report notes that it has had its funding slashed by 75 per cent over the past three years.
“The Citizens Advice Service in St Helens play a vital role in helping local people manage their problems, especially with regards to financial worries” the report says.
“The figures that we received from them are staggering, although the total figures are quite possibly a lot higher as not all people will contact them directly for help.”
Following the scrutiny review, councillors made a number of recommendations.
One of these is for the council to look into the feasibility of a dedicated officer or independent advisor within the council’s revenue and benefits department who would identify and work with vulnerable clients be investigated.
All attempts by the revenue and benefits department to work with the clients should be undertaken prior to enforcement agency referral.
It is also recommended that if any of the council’s departments identify a person as vulnerable, then information should be shared.
St Helens Council’s cabinet will present their response to the review later this year.