Staff have been praised for their “rapid response” to a review that discovered vulnerable people weren’t always being identified when being chased for council tax arrears.
Earlier this year a sub-group of councillors on St Helens Council’s audit and financial monitoring overview and scrutiny panel carried out a review into the collection of council tax arrears.
The task group learnt the council did not have clear definition of a ‘vulnerable person’ within the context of debt recovery.
The review found that statistics are provided monthly to the council from two enforcement agents stating which clients had been identified as vulnerable.
However, the review uncovered that the council did not supply any information regarding the person’s status when their case was initially passed over to the bailiffs.
The task group’s findings were presented to cabinet in July. Its response, which outlined the agreed actions and the proposed implementation of the recommendations, was approved in September.
At the meeting it was agreed that a vulnerable person is now defined as: “Someone who, due to their health or something that’s happened within their life, finds it more difficult to deal with their financial affairs and requires appropriate adjustments to be made within the debt recovery process to engage and maintain their financial obligations.”
This week, the new-look audit and financial monitoring overview and scrutiny panel was updated on the progress in implementing the recommendations.
Gordon Lee, assistant director for service delivery, explained what the new definition means in practice.
Mr Lee said: “The point here is that, if somebody identifies themselves as vulnerable, we will take steps to see how we can help them to continue to engage with us in the debt recovery process and potentially avoid using things like enforcement agents.
“As part of the other recommendations, we have set up a separate team so that we can identify and deal with vulnerable council tax-payers.
“And we’re implementing at the moment, revised processes and training staff so that they can ensure that they can identify people so that we can make those appropriate adjustments within the process.”
Labour’s Michelle Sweeney was part of the task force that carried out the review and said she “really welcomed” the new definition.
Coun Sweeney said: “I was a member of this task group and it was brought to us on the basis that we had a number of people who would not ordinarily be classed as vulnerable within the social model.
“I for one would like to thank you for the rapid response you’ve given that and the time your department took to come and meet us and explain the pressures that you were under at that time.
“It certainly gave us some insight. But the definition, I really welcome.”
Mr Lee said the council will be “imminently” signing up to the Local Government Association’s National Council Tax Protocol.
He said the department will continue to work with other sections of the council and partner agencies to improve awareness of how it identifies vulnerable people and how it can respond appropriately.