Free debt advice provider PayPlan and the professional body for debt advisers, the Institute of Money Advisers (IMA), will be launching its campaign to end the imprisonment of people for the non-payment of council tax bills in England and Wales at the MALG Conference 2017. Here, Alistair Chisholm, Head of Advice Sector Policy and Partnerships at PayPlan, gives an insight into next week’s discussion.
The overwhelming response when finding out that people in England and Wales could be imprisoned for the non-payment of council tax is “I can’t believe we still do that”.
For those who fall behind in their council tax payments, the consequences can be severe. Advisers at PayPlan, and members of the Institute of Money Advisers, report that people who fall into debt with their council tax bills often feel threatened with the possibility of imprisonment, even when the circumstances mean prison should not be used in their case. This threat of a custodial sentence and ensuing court proceedings can be highly disruptive and distressing for those involved.
Indeed, there are a number of ways that people in England and Wales committed to prison for council tax debt are treated less favourably than those convicted of more severe criminal offences. Imprisonment itself is an anomaly for this issue – it is not allowed in Scotland, Northern Ireland or elsewhere in Europe.
Furthermore, court action by local authorities against people with council tax arrears has increased dramatically since 2012. We also found clear evidence suggesting that there are a number of miscarriages of justice concerning the imprisonment of people for having council tax debt.
Earlier this year, the BBC reported a High Court review of a case, which found failings in the way the case was dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court. In this instance, it was clear that the problem was that the individual in prison just could not afford to pay. The court found that the imprisonment of Melanie Woolcock from South Wales, who had served 40 days of an 81 day prison sentence in July 2016, had been unlawful.
Council tax imprisonment is becoming an action used by a small minority of local authorities – and in most cases most councils only imprisoned one person. Ironically, we also know that the local authorities that enforce custodial sentences often also promote advice services and have done so for many years.
Our advisers at PayPlan are witnessing an increasing level of hardship and anticipate a further rise in the number of people falling into council tax arrears. Our concern is that imprisonment seems to be used because it always has, rather than because the policy makers have clear evidence about how the process works in practice.
In the report we are launching at this year’s MALG Conference, we will argue that imprisonment for council tax debt is disproportionate and harsh. It is not consistent with how other debts are recovered and can lead to serious miscarriages of justice, not to mention the distress caused by the threat of court proceedings and imprisonment. Council tax collection should focus on the circumstances, income and assets of the person – continued reform and fairness is needed across the whole process.