Today’s guest blog comes from my Deputy Mayor, Craig Cheney.
This week the Council has announced our new ethical approach to debt and enforcement. This approach builds on the plans laid out in our 2016 manifesto and has been driven on by Councillor Paul Goggin.
Our ethical approach strikes a sustainable balance between recovering debts owed to the council and avoiding undue pressure on those with money struggles. Working with people to address their money problems means the Council is more likely to prevent future debt issues, rather than just collecting owed council tax. We’re also working to develop financial literacy skills for people to help address their money problems. This is all part of our vision for Bristol to be a city of hope and aspiration, where everyone can share in our success regardless of their difficulties – financial or otherwise.
Debt can be a complex and difficult issue. In many cases, people require support to manage their money in ways which do not worsen their situation. For many, it is easy to fall into a ‘cycle of deprivation’ where linked problems reinforce the difficulty of escaping debt. As a council, we want to work with people to support them in meeting their commitments without them slipping further into debt. Using enforcement agents, or bailiffs, passes the cost of collection onto the debtor, and has the potential to exacerbate an already difficult situation with more stress and pressure by adding even more debt to someone that is already struggling.
In the past, the Council has used contracts with external enforcement agencies as a cost-neutral way collect this money, but our new approach aims to be a more-ethical form of debt recovery. We recognise the mounting evidence that concludes early intervention and support for those facing debt is a more effective strategy. The Council is already using early-intervention to signpost vulnerable people towards advice and information services early before their situation becomes too serious. This approach has already proved to be effective: collection rates in 2017/18 were the highest ever in Bristol at 96.79%, and the number of council tax debt recovery cases passed to enforcement agents has dropped by 8% against last year. By using bailiffs as a measure of last resort, we will be the second local authority to commit to ethical debt collection.
This being said, debts are still a problem for the Council. Unpaid council tax is a major concern for the Council, and any money we don’t collect is money we can’t spend on delivering services to Bristol. Council tax exists so that the Council can afford to provide the services people across Bristol depend upon for their day-to-day lives. As it forms such an important source of revenue, the Council will still use formal legal methods to address owed council tax. For people who are able to pay and simply choose not to, the Council will act to recover the money owed by the necessary means.
This new approach is building on what we’re currently doing, and will reduce the stress and add support for those who need it most. Let’s be clear – our vision for this approach is that we collect more money owed than ever before, while reducing the impact on vulnerable people or those struggling with debt. It’s a model that speaks for itself.