Are half a million people facing court as a result of council tax arrears?

Published: 14th Oct 2013

"Up to 500,000 vulnerable people, including carers, widows and war veterans, are estimated to have been summonsed to court for failing to pay their council tax after the government cut benefits to help those on low income, according to figures collated by Labour." The Guardian, 11 October 2013

"The figures are unbelievable. Because there is no comparative, and it is important to put comparisons in there. Under the last year of the Labour government three million summonses were issued." Brandon Lewis, BBC News, 11 October 2013

The Labour Party and the Department of Communities and Local Government locked horns last week over claims that as a result of changes to means-tested council tax support, up to half a million vulnerable people are facing court summons for failing to pay their council tax.

In April this year council tax support replaced council tax benefit. Government expenditure on council tax benefit has been reduced by 10%, and it's up to local authorities to decide what amount individuals on council tax support should pay towards their council tax bill. Councils can make the saving by reducing council tax support, increasing council tax revenues, or absorbing the cut and making up the shortfall elsewhere.

Labour sent a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to all 326 English local authorities, and just over a third (112) replied. The survey showed that 156,563 summonses had been issued to people who fell behind with payments between April and September 2013. We asked the Labour party if it could provide us with a full data set but were told there's no plan to publish the numbers in full.

Labour argues that because only about a third of councils responded, if we extrapolate across all councils, the number of summonses sent to individuals on a low-incomes across the country could be as high as 455,710.

However not all councils will reduce the level of support for council tax benefit recipients. According to a survery carried out by the New Policy Institute, 18% of councils have decided to absorb the 10% the funding cut into their overall budget.

The local government minister Brandon Lewis called Labour's survey "shoddy" and challenged Labour's claim by saying that it's "contradicted by official statistics."

We asked the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to provide us with the official statistics which Mr Lewis claims contradicts Labour's data.

We were told that "the most recent figures actually show that councils have been able to collect more money from their residents than this time last year, undermining claims about arrears."

The council tax receipts live tables show that £6.9 billion of council tax was collected in England in the quarter beginning in April 1st 2013, 3.5 % more than in the same period of the previous year. DCLG also pointed out that there's been a slight fall in the overall amount of arrears (as a proportion of the amount of Council Tax that should have been collected in the year) from March 2012 to March 2013. This fall however happened before council tax reduction schemes were introduced. 

However this information doesn't necessarily contradict Labour's figures, which cover the number of people summonsed to court over unpaid council tax. A spokesperson for DCLG did however direct us towards this article. Here Brandon Lewis is quoted as saying:

"In the last year of the Labour Government, 3 million summons were issued for unpaid council tax. The Coalition Government has taken action to help hard-working families by freezing council tax for up to five years."

Again however, these figures aren't directly comparable to those unearthed by Labour.

For starters, they refer to a different time frame. While the 156,000 in Labour's data were summoned in the six months between April 1st and the end of September this year, the figures cited by Brandon Lewis refer to last 12 months of the Labour government.

More importantly, Labour has specified that what they sought to find out was how many of those specifically affected by cuts to council tax benefit were in arrears with their payments (according to reports - we've asked to see a copy of the FoI request submitted by Labour, but the party has declined to make it available).

The 3 million figure cited by the DCLG minister covers all court summons across all income groups.

The data is held by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), which receives it directly from all councils. 

CIPFA sent us the number of summonses for council tax arrears issued every year from 2004/05 to 2011/12:

Year

Number of summonses - England only

2004-05

2,889,724

2005-06

2,782,430

2006-07

2,958,388

2007-08

3,140,989

2008-09

3,094,240

2009-10

2,976,745

2010-11

2,868,058

2011-12

2,880,882

As we can see, the number summons reached a peak of 3.14 million in 2007/08 and it thereafter fell to the 2.88 million in 2011/12. CIPFA said data from 2012/13 will be published in the following weeks.

CIPFA also told us they did not break the number of summons down by the income groups of the recipients and that this information is not collected centrally. So while there may be problems with Labour's figure - without access to the data we cannot know exactly what data has been collected from which councils - there also appears to be a dearth of information which might help to put these figures into context.

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Flickr image courtesy of TounoTouji


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