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Exclusive: Hundreds faced jail over unpaid council tax since 2010

New data reveals how councils have been taking action against people in debt – many of whom can’t afford to pay.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

More than 80 people may have been jailed for not paying their council tax over the last five years across England and Wales, with a further 2,100 being given deferred jail terms, an exclusive New Statesman Spotlight investigation can reveal.

Data obtained from HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), following a freedom of information (FOI) request, also reveals that some councils did not uphold a common convention that they would not engage in enforcement action during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, while many households struggled with finances. Councils reported an increase of £500m in council tax arrears – equivalent to the bills of 1.3 million households – in the early months of the pandemic, according to Citizens Advice figures from June 2020. The data from HMCTS shows that there were 17 court cases between April 2020 and July 2021.

The Spotlight investigation found that, overall, in 81 cases the defendant was given a committal order (an order that they be jailed) and in 2,170 they were given a suspended committal order between 1 January 2017 and 31 December 2022.

The data records cases rather than individuals, so it is possible that one person may have been the defendant in multiple cases. Defendants may also have paid their debt after receiving the committal order and therefore not in fact have been sent to prison.

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England is the only UK nation in which someone can be jailed for not paying their council tax. Councils can apply for committal orders from magistrates' courts against residents in arrears. That is not the case in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and Wales also stopped the use of committal orders and suspended committal orders in new arrears cases from April 2019.

The non-payment of council tax is a civil, rather than criminal, offence. Under the Local Government Finance Act 1992 someone who is able to pay their council tax but doesn’t, due to “wilful refusal or culpable neglect”, can be imprisoned for up to three months.

Data shows that jail sentences for non-payment of council tax appear to be on the decline. Forty-four people were given jail sentences in 2017, and none in 2022. The West Midlands was the region with the most enforcement action between January 2017 and December 2022, with 21 defendants jailed and 807 given deferred jail terms. The North East had the least action. Fifty-five defendants were given suspended committal orders and no one was jailed.

Council tax arrears is the second-most common debt issue that Citizens Advice assists people with. In response to the findings of Spotlight’s investigation, the charity said the system by which local taxes are enforced “needs a root and branch review”.

In 2017 an FOI request by the Social Market Foundation think tank revealed that, between the 2010 and 2017 financial years, 692 cases had resulted in a jail order and 7,990 in a suspended committal order for non-payment of council tax. Combined with the Spotlight FOI, that means that across 13 years of Conservative government, 773 people may have been jailed and more than 10,000 given deferred jail terms.

Local authorities are only meant to pursue a committal order if a resident is actively or neglectfully not paying council tax. Enforcement action is not intended for those who genuinely cannot afford it, but there are concerns that many people have been jailed even though they could not pay.

[See also: Local authorities need an emergency rescue package]

According to Jamie Thunder, from the Z2K charity, which campaigns against injustice in housing and social security, the main driver for non-payment of council tax is people not receiving additional benefits that they’re entitled to because of ill health or disability. “If you're not getting all the benefits that you are entitled to, your financial situation is going to be worse,” he told Spotlight. “There’ll be some people who could afford these [council tax] payments if they were getting what they should from the state.”

Enforcement action can be a highly stressful process for vulnerable people who cannot afford to pay their council tax. In 2016 Melanie Woolcock, a single mother from Bridgend, south Wales, spent 40 days in prison for failing, after being ordered by a court, to pay £10 a week to settle her £4,742 of arrears. Woolcock said she was too sick to work and struggled to pay rent and feed herself and her teenage son. Her appeal judge agreed that she could not afford to pay her council tax and overturned the initial 81-day jail term. This contributed to the Welsh government's decision to abolish custodial terms in these cases.

Gina*, 31, a single mother based in Salisbury, fell behind on her council tax after she was recovering from the traumatic birth of her daughter, her second child. “Having a newborn, I just forgot about paying it and obviously had other stuff on my mind, worrying about my daughter," she told Spotlight. "I was going backwards and forwards between the doctors every week.”

Gina suffers from depression and anxiety, as well as having to care for her toddler, and is unable to work; she claims Universal Credit to support her family. At the end of 2021, around five months after her daughter’s birth, Gina became aware of her debt and discovered that the council had begun enforcement action on her arrears, passing it on to bailiffs to recoup the money. Bailiffs (who operate with loose regulations) added their own interest and fees to her initial £250 debt, which grew to £700.

Bailiffs threatened to take things from her home and wanted Gina to pay more than £80 a month to reduce the debt. “I couldn't afford it, having two young kids and with everything going up,” Gina said. The bailiffs just “didn’t care at all” about her difficult situation. “I tried to tell them: ‘I have two young kids, I'm not working at the moment, and I have mental health issues’.”

Councils are given guidance to consider alternative options to solve debts if it’s likely that further enforcement action would have a detrimental effect on a household. Thunder, who used to work as a debt adviser for a charity, argued that councils are failing to look into why debts may go unpaid, instead choosing to escalate the matter immediately, operating what he called a “shoot first, ask questions later” policy.

The Local Government Association, which represents councils, told Spotlight that local authorities will only use bailiffs and court proceedings as a “last resort” to unresponsive residents.

The government ended the national Council Tax Benefit discount scheme in 2013, which exempted working age adults who were out of work from paying council tax. Councils were then able to develop their own schemes, but keeping the previous protections was not mandatory. Some councils have retained the previous 100 per cent discount, but many have minimum payment levels which residents have to make.

In April, council tax in most areas went up 5 per cent, with the extra funds targeted to bolster local social care provision. Local authorities are funded through government grants, council tax and business rates. Government funding, however, has been dwindling for more than decade, falling by £15bn in real terms between 2010-2020, according to research from the Institute for Government. The puts more pressure on authorities to raise council tax to fund vital local services.

The response to Spotlight's FOI request shows that jail orders over unpaid council tax are now used sparingly (the last person to receive an order of imprisonment was in November 2021). Is it time for England, like the other UK nations, to stop the practice entirely?

“I don't know if I'm fully convinced about the need to step back from that,” Lee Rowley, the minister for local government, told a Levelling Up Select Committee this year. Court proceedings, he added, are “specifically for people who wilfully refuse to pay”. Rowley declined requests to comment on Spotlight's FOI, but a government spokesperson said: “We have made clear that councils should be sympathetic to those in genuine hardship and always be proportionate in how they collect outstanding council tax.”

If someone is ordered to be jailed over unpaid council tax, they won’t get a criminal record. “There's no criminal record, but they'll have been to jail and shared cells with people who are criminals,” Samuel Genen, the solicitor who represented Melanie Woolcock, told Spotlight. From his experience with similar cases, Genen raised concerns about courts “abusing” their powers and sending people to prison without following due process: for example, people being committed to jail having not been present for the court proceedings.

Magistrates must do an assessment of a debtor’s funds and determine if they have the ability to pay their arrears (if not, the law allows the courts to remit the debt), or whether they are able to, but are being “wilfully neglectful” with their finances or simply refusing to pay. Only if either of the latter is determined to be the case can someone be given a committal order that puts them in prison. Doing that assessment in the debtor’s absence (and a court can issue a warrant to compel someone to attend) is “almost automatically illegal – because the case law has set the precedent”, Genen explained.

[See also: What does it mean when a council declares bankruptcy?]

Having worked on the case that ultimately led to committal orders for unpaid council tax being banned in Wales, Genen said he was “keen” for England to follow suit. When plans to remove jail and deferred jail term options were suggested in Wales, local authorities feared the impact it would have on council tax collection. But a report published this year concluded that the change “had not affected council tax collection rates in Wales”.

On the whole, collection is very routine: local authorities receive more than 99 per cent of the council tax due to them.  “I don't think councils actively want to be taking enforcement action against people who have no earned income, who are in poverty,” Thunder said, “[but] the way these systems are run at the moment means that inevitably they do.”

He suggested councils could use data to identify those who repeatedly have trouble with paying and offer them exemptions and further support. In a 2022 submission to an inquiry by the Levelling Up Committee, the Local Government Association said there was “considerable appetite” and ongoing work on improving how councils collect tax, including “sharing data” to ensure what they called effective “targeted recovery”.

The association added that it was “in favour of making it easier for councils to recover money without having to go to the courts”, and the removal of the requirement in law for an individual’s entire annual sum to become payable if an instalment is missed. It also called on the government to further understand and “where possible, amend” policy and funding that “exacerbates debt and vulnerability”.

Among their suggestions was that the government ensures "that the national benefits system provides a fair and adequate safety net for vulnerable low-income households”.

*Name has been changed upon request to preserve anonymity.

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