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Bexley refers more residents to bailiffs over council tax than any other London borough

PUBLISHED: 13:52 31 August 2016 | UPDATED: 13:02 01 September 2016

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A new report reveals the impact of localisation of council tax support

Bexley has referred 3,741 low-income residents to bailiffs following an increase in minimum council tax charges - more than any other London borough.

In 2015-16, 5,101 low-income residents were issued with a court summons and 4,447 were charged additional court costs after the borough hiked its minimum payment to 15 per cent, according to a new report by the Child Poverty Action Group.

This is the first year Bexley has used bailiffs and charged costs for households that are unable to pay their council tax charges.

The report, Still Too Poor to Pay, reveals more than 19,000 low income, sick and disabled Londoners were referred to bailiffs in 2015 - a 51 per cent increase on the previous year.

Council tax arrears have risen since the localisation of council tax support to London boroughs in 2013, and the capital has seen a 45 per cent hike in the use of bailiffs to chase down the debts from the capital’s poorest households.

Before the changes, council tax benefit covered claimants’ council tax bills in full, but under the new scheme councils are free to set a minimum payment from claimants of between five and 30 per cent.

In Bexley, the minimum payment in 2016-17 is now 20 per cent, up from just five per cent in 2013-14.

Although a hardship fund was set up by the borough to help the most vulnerable, its budget was halved from £100,000 to £50,000 in 2015-16.

The report calls on central government to reinstate council tax support as a national benefit, providing up to 100 per cent support for people not in work.

It also recommends that if the benefit remains localised, London boroughs should reinstate 100 per cent support for their poorest residents.

Chief Executive of Z2K Joanna Kennedy said: “Over the past year Bexley has sent bailiffs after 3,741 of it’s poorest unemployed, low-paid, sick and disabled residents – the most of any London borough.

“What’s all the more shocking is in previous years the council exempted claimants from bailiff action as they were deemed too vulnerable, why the sudden change in policy?

“The real reason these people can’t afford to pay is that the amount they are charged has quadrupled over the past three years from five per cent to 20 per cent. For those Bexley residents struggling to get by on insufficient incomes these charges are simply too much.”

A spokesperson for Bexley vCouncil said: “We would strongly refute the claims that Bexley has used bailiffs more than any other London Borough.

“For 2015-16, the actual number where enforcement was used just for those of working age in receipt of Council Tax Support was 1,435 total cases and we have previously advised Z2K that their use of figures is incorrect

“The 3,741 referred in the release are the total number of referrals from 1 April 2013 to May 2016, and include any Council Tax Support cases where the debtor had NOT previously been receiving maximum financial support under the old Council tax Benefit scheme, as well as any working age claimants to Council Tax Support receiving maximum entitlement.

“We have a duty to all our Council Tax payers to collect debts from those who do not pay their bills. Enforcement action is only ever taken by the Council as a last resort. Before that stage we make every effort to provide a range of support and advice for people struggling to make payments.

“Before taking enforcement action the account is vetted to ensure that the holder isn’t vulnerable in any way. Our records have shown that where people have been referred to enforcement agents, 50% of them are now paying in full when first receiving a letter, which no longer makes an enforcement visit, with additional costs, necessary.”

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