Alistair Chisholm, head of advice sector policy and partnerships at PayPlan, wrote an industry report ‘I can’t believe we still do that’ in November 2017. The report, a joint project between PayPlan and the Institute of Money Advisers revealed:
- There is a postcode lottery when it comes to prison – only a minority of councils still use court action to imprison council tax debtors.
- The average debt level of people subject to committal action in court for council tax arrears in 2016/17 was just £2,213.00 – below the level for which the law allows bankruptcy to be considered.
- Council tax debt is not a crime. People sent to prison for council tax debt have weaker protections in court than criminals. For example, they have no time taken off for good behaviour, and the appeal process is usually very expensive and hard to use.
Commenting on the announcement by the Welsh Government about its intentions to abolish imprisonment for those with council tax debt, Alistair said: “We are delighted by this announcement – it’s great to see that the Welsh Government has decided to change this outdated law. Sending people to prison because they are behind with a bill can be devastating – for them and their families. Prison should be for serious crimes, not local debt.
“I have enormous respect for the women who were sent to prison for council tax debt in Wales who have spoken out about this issue in court and in the media. They have made a huge difference. Our review of councils across England and Wales last year found that the Vale of Glamorgan Council committed 14 people to prison in 2016/17 as a result of council tax arrears, the second highest for a council in the UK. I hope it will be some comfort for these individuals that in the future other people won’t have to suffer being locked up for local debts.
“Those struggling with debt should not feel they are unfairly lumped together with criminals. We hope this announcement will see Welsh councils work more closely with advice agencies and those members of their community struggling financially so that council tax debt collection is proportionate and fair.
“It’s now time for government authorities in England to stand up and take notice of these changes, and get up to speed with counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland where this outdated practice is already unlawful.”
Robert Wilson, Chief Executive of the Institute of Money Advisers, adds: “As well as action by government and local councils, we need improved training for magistrates and court staff. Dealing with the growing number of people who have serious money problems requires expertise. Debt is complicated, and officials need an informed, professional understanding of the realities of living with financial difficulty. We would like to see the courts and the Ministry of Justice working more closely with money advisers”.