“More humane” debt collection policy proposed

THE CASE studies from the Thurrock Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) did not make comfortable reading. They were not meant to, but manager Mike Rawlings and his team will be encouraged that the ruling Labour cabinet last night (Wednesday) agreed to recommend a fairer debt policy.

A cross party working group has looked at the council’s debt collection policy and recommended a “fairer policy” but with council staff being condemned for their “lack of co-operation” councillors wanted to be reassured that they would be made to toe the line.

Portfolio holder Diana Hale said: “Can we have an assurance that if staff ignore our fairer debt policy, they will be disciplined?”

Corporate Director Martin Hone gave an assurance that action would be taken.

The CAB report chronicled a series of scenarios that many agreed did not portray the council in the best light.

The CAB said: “This report highlights a number of case studies that demonstrate questionable practices in respect of enforcement action, including use of
bailiffs in preference to other methods of enforcement, such as attachment to earnings and direct deductions, threatened use of bankruptcy proceedings and letters notifying clients that committal proceedings will be pursued in the event of non payment.

“While these are all legitimate options for the local authority, it is the context in which such action has been pursued that merits close consideration, particularly in the context of vulnerable residents.

CAB pointed to a number of deficiencies:
The apparent absence of a working vulnerable adults policy
· Bailiffs charging unreasonable fees
· Threatened use of bankruptcy proceedings
· Threats to commence committal proceedings

CAB produced a number of scenarios that they believed had to stop.

“A client caring for a disabled parent had no income due to issues relating to her claim for means tested benefit. The original mount of arrears amounted to around £260.00 Thurrock Council instructed Newlyn and JBW to enforce the debt. The client had not signed a walking possession agreement and no goods had ever been levied. Newlyn made two charges in line with the legislation but then proceeded to add two further charges totalling over £240.00 In this case it emerges that a levy had taken place in respect of a vehicle that did not actually belong to the client.

Adopting a collaborative approach based on good practice guidance will enable Thurrock council to attain and maintain healthy recovery rates whilst balancing the needs of local residents particularly those who are vulnerable. It is a fact that cannot be denied that some residents decide not to pay their council tax, however there are cases where residents are unable to pay due to genuine financial difficulties or genuine vulnerability; these factors should be considered when officers decide how and when to pursue enforcement action.

The CAB report illustrated a huge frustration with council officers attitude to collaboration.

“The council’s approach to recovery appears to be increasingly single minded; over the past year advisers and caseworkers have consistently reported difficulties to management and supervisory staff with regard to their contact with staff from the recovery team.

“We appear to have moved away from a working arrangement whereby bureau staff were able to effectively submit arguments in support of their
clients and present mitigating circumstances and arrange sustainable and reasonable payment arrangements to a situation where communication has
deteriorated to the point where we no longer have the ability to effectively progress cases in a mutually constructive manner.

“The only remaining option in the absence of constructive dialogue has been action under the council’s complaints procedure. Bureau staff, many of whom are volunteers, have informed management that recovery staff have been consistently refusing to consider any representations that are made on behalf of clients.

“Requests for enforcement action to be placed on hold, for accounts to be called back from bailiffs, or for reasonable repayment offers to be accepted have been roundly refused. The bureau has numerous records of emails and letters which have not received responses.

Council leader John Kent said: “I welcome this report and all the work that a number of individuals have made. A more humane and fair minded approach is vital.

“We recognise that there are people who will stubbornly refuse to pay despite having the means and so we were delighted to claw back £6 million from them in the alst year. Money that can go to front line services.

“However we must have a fair, even handed and joined up approach to debt collection that protects the most vulnerable in the borough.”

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