Citizens Advice Ipswich urges government against “devastating” Universal Credit cut

  • Local charity says 53% of people seeking its advice on benefits have never needed its support before
  • Number of people claiming Universal Credit in Ipswich has risen 85% since the pandemic began

A local charity has warned of the “devastating impact” of a scheduled cut to Universal Credit in April.

Staff and volunteers at Citizens Advice Ipswich have helped 982 people with Universal Credit since March last year. Around 53% of people in Ipswich seeking its advice on benefits have never contacted the charity before.

Advisers say many needing support from the benefits system have lost their job or suffered a drop in income as a result of the pandemic.

Citizens Advice Ipswich, which has continued to provide one-to-one support throughout the pandemic, warns that local families could be pushed into further hardship if the £20 a week Universal Credit uplift ends as planned in April.

In the East of England, the number of people claiming Universal Credit has risen 105% since the pandemic started. This compares to a rise of 93% nationally.

For households in the East of England, the loss of £20 a week is equivalent to almost 3 days food or 6 days energy costs.

Steve Dixon, Help to Claim Universal Credit Adviser at Citizens Advice Ipswich, said:

‘As well as helping people with claims for Universal Credit, we are seeing a huge increase in the numbers of households needing help with food and energy costs. Without the £20 we will see even more of these requests. It’s very worrying. Removing the Universal Credit uplift payment will plunge thousands of recipients from the breadline into poverty. The gov’t felt the uplift was critical last April and the effects of COVID look set to continue beyond April so the uplift continues to be vital for the households we are helping, whether in work or having lost their jobs?’

A client with a very young family said yesterday:

‘I need support now. I haven’t got enough petrol to go to the cheaper shops for food and I don’t know what I will do if I can’t top up my electric meter.’

Nicky Willshere, Chief Officer of Citizens Advice Ipswich, said:

“We support people every day whose lives have been turned upside down by this pandemic. For many of them, Universal Credit is the lifeline that has helped pay the bills and put food on the table.

“But households across Ipswich now face the devastating prospect of a £20 a week cut to their benefits in just a few short months.

“With a tough outlook in the jobs market, we’re urging the government to continue doing the right thing and maintain the Universal Credit uplift.”

Citizens Advice Ipswich celebrates after receiving £96,000 from the National Lottery to support our welfare benefits casework

Citizens Advice Ipswich celebrates after receiving £96,000 from the National Lottery to support our welfare benefits casework

Local Advice Charity, Citizens Advice Ipswich, is today celebrating after being awarded just over £90,000 in National Lottery funding to support welfare benefits casework. The grant will fund our welfare benefits specialist to help clients maximise their income through benefits claims and appeals.

Citizens Advice Ipswich has been running since 1974 and is staffed by around 60 volunteers and 32 staff. Access to and problems with welfare benefits is the most sought-after area of advice with over 2000 clients receiving advice on benefits in 2020.

Understanding how to access the benefits system when it is needed for people losing their jobs, starting a family, becoming sick or reaching retirement age is a complicated journey. Our welfare benefits work covers supporting people to understand the benefits system and work out if they are entitled to a benefit and at what rate. We help people apply for Universal Credit and other benefits for people on low incomes. We help people understand disability benefits, housing and council tax reductions and work out how they can be as well off as possible. We also support people to challenge decisions made that they think are wrong. In the last year we have supported clients improve their income to the tune of around £500,000 in total through in-depth benefits advice casework. This generous grant will underpin this work and ensure it carries on for another three years.

The new funding from The National Lottery Community Fund, which distributes money raised by National Lottery players for good causes and is the largest community funder in the UK, will fund a specialist caseworker to take these complex cases.

At the same time, Citizens Advice Ipswich will carry on with training new advisers into benefits advice work to increase our capacity in the years to come which we know from our statistics will continue to be a burgeoning work area for us.

Nicky Willshere, Chief Officer at Citizens Advice Ipswich, says:

“We’re delighted that The National Lottery Community Fund has recognised our work in this way. Now, thanks to National Lottery players we will be able to press on with our work to maximise incomes for some of the least well off in Ipswich. This is vital because coming out of COVID and supporting people affected by the disease and its economic impacts, Citizens Advice will continue to be a lifeline for the community.”

Half a million renters in arrears as evictions set to resume

  • In December, Citizens Advice helped someone every two minutes with an issue to do with their privately rented housing
  • Average amount owed on rent is over £700, with an estimated £360 million owed across the UK.
  • Since October, Citizens Advice Ipswich have dealt with over 500 issues concerning housing and rent arrears
  • One in four private renters in arrears have been threatened with eviction or cancellation of contract by their landlord

Half a million private renters in the UK are behind on their rent, with protections against eviction due to expire this weekend, according to Citizens Advice.

This comes as the country enters another period of national lockdown, causing further economic hardship. Renters have already been badly affected by the economic consequences of the pandemic with one in three private renters losing income.

For the majority struggling with their rent, this is a new challenge – 58% of those behind on rent had no rent arrears in February 2020. For people already struggling with rent before the pandemic hit, their arrears have got worse for 40% of them. On average, people who have fallen behind on rent now owe £730, which would mean around £360 million is owed across the country. Mortgage payers have been able to benefit from formal payment holidays, but renters have been forced to fall back on negotiating month-by-month with their landlords.

The temporary ban on bailiffs enforcing evictions in Tiers 2, 3 and 4 ends on Monday (11 January) and Citizens Advice is warning that, without further help for renters, an avalanche of evictions could take place in the spring.

A quarter of those the charity surveyed who have rent arrears have already been threatened with eviction, termination of their rental contract, or handed an eviction notice despite the current rules.

Citizens Advice is calling for:

  • A legal ban on bailiff action and pause on all possession proceedings during the national lockdown in England and in tiers 2 and above beyond 11 January
  • targeted financial support for people in England who’ve built up rent arrears. The government should consider a system of grants and government-backed loans – comparable to schemes in Scotland and Wales – to help people pay back their rent arrears sustainably and stay in their homes
  • .

Case Study

Jacob* is a student who works as a cleaner to make ends meet. Due to a flare up of a health condition which was worsened by lockdown, he had to stop working. He’s since been living off Universal Credit (UC) and his student loan. The UC includes the maximum housing allowance but this doesn’t cover his rent.

His student loan complicated his UC entitlement, so for a few months during lockdown the loan was his only form of income. This wasn’t enough to cover his rent and other basic living costs, and he had to reduce his rent payments.

He contacted his letting agent to try and negotiate a temporary reduction. However, the agent didn’t reply to his email or any other contact for over three months during lockdown. When they did finally get back to him, they declined his request and notified him that he was in arrears. Jacob is now worried that he could be evicted.

Jacob says:

“I’ve no idea what might happen, and that’s the scary thing. Every day I’m waiting for a letter to say that he wants to sell the place, or change the tenancy or something like that. It’s always in the back of my mind that you’re going to get home and there’s a letter to say ‘Section 21’.”

“The only thing I can remember the government making clear was the ban on evictions – that was the thing they were pushing. How is that going to help anybody when the ban is lifted? You can still be evicted because you’ve got arrears. That has just added to the pressure.”

Citizens Advice Ipswich Deputy Manager, Nelleke van Helfteren, said:

“We’re seeing an increasing number of people come to us for help with rent arrears. This includes people who only six months ago had a well-paid job but were made redundant due to the pandemic and are finding it very difficult to find a job on a similar level.

“In some cases, they have built up arrears despite having sought and followed advice to claim the correct benefits and reduce expenses. When this hasn’t been enough they have then had to go on to sell their phone and other belongings – or even gone without food – in an attempt to keep up payments on their rent and other bills.

“If the eviction ban ends, for some families this will mean going from having a home, to living out of a bag. They’ll have to start their lives all over again – all due to an unprecedented situation that was totally out of their control.”

Nicky Willshere, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Ipswich, said:

“As coronavirus restrictions once again tighten for everyone, the government must not forget the struggles of private renters. They currently face the prospect of losing their home once the eviction ban ends next week and the debt they have built up is likely to cast a long shadow over their future.

“Half a million private renters remain behind on their rent, with the majority falling behind during the pandemic restrictions. Unlike people who own their homes, private tenants have had no structured way to defer payments but instead have had to try to keep up with their rent and bills as best they can in a time of great uncertainty and hardship.

“Even though many landlords are trying their best to support their tenants, thousands of renters could face eviction in the coming months without further help. The government must act decisively to prevent evictions in areas subject to the highest coronavirus restrictions. And they should provide targeted support to help people escape the trap of rent arrears in the New Year.”

Citizens Advice Ipswich shares top tips for safe and savvy shopping this Black Friday

Ahead of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Citizens Advice Ipswich is reminding consumers of their online shopping rights and how to make sure they stick to their budget.

Citizens Advice Consumer Service has seen the number of people seeking help about online shopping nearly double, with almost 125,000 online shopping-related issues raised so far this year compared to 74,000 in the same period in 2019.

With England still in lockdown, sale shopping will look a little different this year so Citizens Advice Ipswich experts are on hand to make sure you know your consumer rights and help keep within your budget.

Nelleke van Helfteren, Deputy Manager, shares top tips to help consumers stay safe online:

If you change your mind about a purchase

If you buy online, unless it’s bespoke, made to measure, or you’ve broken a digital or hygiene seal, by law you will get an automatic 14-day cooling-off period. This starts the day after you receive your order, and there doesn’t need to be anything wrong with the item for you to get a refund.

If you buy something in person, shops aren’t legally required to accept returns for unwanted goods. Despite this, the shop may choose to have its own returns policy. If it does, they must honour it, so it’s worth checking your receipt.

If you’re worried your purchase is faulty

If something’s gone wrong with an item you’ve bought, you may be entitled to a refund. You’ll have legal rights if you unwittingly bought an item that is broken or damaged, unusable, not what was advertised or doesn’t match the seller’s description.

You’ll have to move quickly, if you’ve bought a faulty item sellers must give you a refund if you return the item within 30 days. Your rights don’t end after 30 days, though after this period the retailer doesn’t necessarily have to refund you, instead they have the option of repairing or replacing the faulty product.

If you’re worried about scams

Be careful not to end up with a counterfeit item. Secure websites should start “https” and have a padlock symbol in the taskbar. Be wary of spelling or grammar mistakes, and companies that don’t provide an address.

Also seek out reviews of the seller from other buyers as these can help you decide whether or not you trust the seller. If there is a lot of negative feedback from other people, it’s often a sign that something’s not right.

If you’re worried that something you’ve seen online might be a scam, you can get help from the Citizens Advice Scams Action service.

If there’s a problem with your Black Friday or Cyber Monday delivery

With more people buying online, more people are experiencing delivery problems. 41% of adults in the East of England have had a parcel delivery problem since the first lockdown in March.

If you bought something to be delivered, it’s the seller’s responsibility to make sure the item is delivered to you. If the seller used a delivery company, they should chase the company to find out what’s happened to your order – it’s not your responsibility.

Check the delivery address you gave the seller. Then contact them and ask where your order is. Be careful in selecting safe places; if you nominate a safe place and the parcel is stolen you might have lost the right to a replacement.

Nicky Willshere, Chief Executive, at Citizens Advice Ipswich shares her advice to keeping within your budget:

“With so many bargains around at this time of year, many people across Ipswich may feel the pressure to part with their money.

“With the uncertainty that coronavirus has brought, it’s important that anyone thinking about turning to credit or taking out a loan to help pay for purchases understands the full costs involved and if they can actually afford to pay it back.

“If you are struggling with your finances, it may feel overwhelming but it’s best to do something about it as soon as possible. You can come to us at Citizens Advice Ipswich to get free debt and money advice which can help you find a way forward and avoid spiralling debts.”

Citizens Advice Ipswich share their top budgeting tips:

Spend time shopping around, researching what deals are on offer and getting advice.

Always look at the total amount you will have to repay when borrowing money. A shorter repayment period may be better than a slightly lower Annual Percentage Rate (APR) amount.

Take care when looking at buy-now-pay-later deals. It might seem like a good option but you’ll need to make sure you pay on time in future. If you don’t, these deals can be very expensive. Even if the deal is interest-free, you should still check that you’ll be able to pay it off in the time period, if not it could damage your credit rating.
Never borrow money on the spur of the moment. Think about payment options beforehand. Work out your budget and stick to it so that you can afford the repayments.

Student accommodation: what are your rights?

Citizens Advice has issued the following advice to students who may want to leave their accommodation before the end of the rental agreement.

If you are a student in halls of residence who wants to move out and end your contract. What are your rights?

Students who want to end their contract with the university and move out of halls of residence are unlikely to be entitled to a refund.

However, in the Spring when the national lockdown came into force, many universities did waive rent due on their own accommodation.

It might be possible to put forward a “frustration” argument if a student can’t access their accommodation, for example because campus has been shut down, or it is impossible or illegal for the student to travel to the accommodation.

This might also be relevant if the purpose of the accommodation is radically altered. For instance, if it was closely tied to a student attending a course in a particular location, and the provider is now delivering the whole course remotely.

However, the unprecedented nature of the pandemic means that legal arguments have not yet really been tested in the context of student contracts, and so it is not yet clear to what extent these arguments might succeed.

An argument that any contract is ‘frustrated’ (i.e. it is impossible to perform) is certainly less likely to succeed in a case where the accommodation continues to be available, but it is the tenant’s choice not to occupy it.

If you are a student in privately rented accommodation who wants to move out and end your tenancy. What are your rights?

Generally you are liable for any rent due until the end of your fixed term (and any guarantor may be pursued if you don’t pay).

Some tenancy agreements contain a break clause. But this would be unusual in a student tenancy agreement where the letting is intended to be for an academic year, and the landlord is only likely to be able to re-let it for the following academic year.

If you share accommodation with other people, then unless you each have a separate agreement, you are likely to be jointly and separately liable for rent.

This means that the landlord can pursue any of the tenants (or their guarantor) for any rent due under the joint agreement, regardless of which tenant failed to pay their share.

That said, it’s still worth trying to negotiate with your landlord, and they may agree to release you from the tenancy early, or to waive or reduce rent if you are not living in the accommodation.

Nicky Willshere, Chief Officer at Citizens Advice Ipswich says:

“It must be very frustrating for students that the academic year hasn’t started in the way they would have hoped.

“Unfortunately, there’s not much good news for students who decide to change households for the medium to long-term, by returning to their family home for example. It’s likely that in many cases they will be tied into their accommodation agreements and not entitled to any refund.

“It’s always worth getting in touch with your landlord and trying to negotiate. But realistically, if there is no obligation for them to release you from the contract, they may well be unwilling to do so.

“Where the landlord is the university, they may be more sympathetic to a short-term reduction in rent, or ending a contract early, if there is no longer any reason for you to remain in halls.

“However, it is early in the academic year, and it may be difficult to find alternative halls of residence accommodation if a student gives up their place, but later wishes to return.”

Citizens Advice: help for renters worried about eviction

The ban on evictions came to an end this weekend, and new figures from Citizens Advice suggest that concern is building amongst renters about the possibility of losing their home.

The number of people seeking help from Citizens Advice about issues to do with private rented properties increased by 43% between summer (June to August) 2020 and the same period last year.

The ban on evictions comes to an end this weekend, and new figures from Citizens Advice suggest that concern is building amongst renters about the possibility of losing their home.

The number of people seeking help from Citizens Advice about issues to do with private rented properties increased by 43% between summer (June to August) 2020 and the same period last year.

Citizens Advice Ipswich helped people with over 380 issues relating to housing and or rent arrears between March and September.

Over the same period, the number of visits to Citizens Advice’s webpage “Dealing with Rent Arrears” more than doubled year on year.

Previous research from the charity has suggested that over a million people have fallen behind on their rent due to Covid-19 across England and Wales.

Nelleke van Helfteren, Deputy Manager at Citizens Advice, shares the top five ‘need-to-knows’ for renters* in England worried about staying in their home.

Find out where you are in the process

“If your landlord wants to evict you from your privately rented home there are three stages they’ll have to go through. First, they’ll need to serve you with a notice. When this expires, they need to go to court to get a possession order, and finally apply for a bailiff visit to evict you. It’s really important to know where you are in that process.

“If your landlord has not yet given you a formal notice then you won’t be evicted for many months. If your landlord has already got a possession order and applied for a bailiff date, you might be evicted with 14 days notice.”

If you haven’t received notice yet but are worried about eviction

“If you haven’t yet been given notice, but are worried about the possibility, talk to your landlord. Explain the effect that coronavirus has had on your household and income. Ask if they’ll accept reduced payments, or let you pay back arrears at a rate you can afford.

“Both the government and the landlords’ body the NRLA have asked landlords to be sympathetic to tenants affected by the pandemic.

“You should also make sure you’re receiving all the benefits you might be entitled to.”

If you’ve received a notice

“The rules on the notice your landlord must give have changed — it may now be up to six months depending on when the notice was served.

“The notice must also be in a specific form, so make sure you have a copy and get it checked. Your local Citizens Advice is one place that can help, either in person or via email. If the landlord hasn’t followed other rules during your tenancy this might also mean that the notice is invalid.

“Your landlord can only make a claim to court after the notice ends. You don’t need to leave by this date, but going to court might mean costs are added to your debt if the notice is valid.”

If your notice is expiring and you’re due to go to court

“After 20 September, courts will start hearings again. If your landlord started the claim after 3 August, you’ll be given a court date automatically, otherwise the landlord will need to serve a ‘reactivation notice’ to restart proceedings.

“Return your defence form if you want the court to consider your evidence or allow you extra time in the property. Supply any evidence of information which you gave your landlord about the effect of Covid-19 on your household and of any payments you’ve made.

“The court will look at the information provided by you and the landlord and decide whether to make an order for possession. In some cases you might be able to stay if you can agree to affordable repayments, but the court has no discretion to allow you to stay if you’ve had a valid Section 21 notice – so-called ‘no-fault eviction’.

“If the possession order is granted, it will usually ask you to leave within 2 to 6 weeks.”

If you’ve had a possession order and are facing eviction

“If the court had already decided your case before the eviction ban started (27 March 2020), you may be given 14 days notice after 20th September that bailiffs will carry out an eviction.

“You should seek urgent advice – from Citizens Advice or another housing charity – about whether there’s any way to prevent or delay the eviction, or about finding alternative accommodation.”

*The advice applies to tenants in private rented accommodation and does not include lodgers.

Even if people are able to follow this advice, Citizens Advice fears that many renters will struggle with arrears built up during the pandemic.

The charity, in a coalition that includes the landlord body the NRLA and housing charities, is calling for direct financial support for people behind on their rent because of Covid-19 – either through grants or government-backed interest-free loans. Citizens Advice is also calling for reforms that give judges more discretion to allow tenants to stay in their homes.

Nicky Willshere, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Ipswich, said:

“Neither renters nor landlords can afford to be saddled with long-term arrears as a result of coronavirus.

“The government must urgently consider direct financial support to help renters clear their debts and stay in their homes, and so make good its promise that no renter will be evicted because of coronavirus and meanwhile we are here to help people with questions or concerns. Call us on Suffolk Adviceline 0300 330 1151”

Notice of AGM

IPSWICH AND DISTRICT CITIZENS ADVICE BUREAU

(Company number 3438957)

NOTICE OF ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING TO BE HELD AT

2.00PM ON 23 SEPTEMBER 2020

(In accordance with regulations introduced in the light of the pandemic (The Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act), the Annual General Meeting will be held electronically and will only deal with the formal matters which are required to be dealt with at the Annual General Meeting.

Citizens Advice Ipswich: Seven things to check if you’re at risk of redundancy

Citizens Advice Ipswich has helped people with 740 issues relating to employment issues since lockdown.

Pay, redundancy, furlough and contract questions are the top issues it has dealt with during the pandemic.

Nicky Wilshere, Chief Officer of Citizens Advice Ipswich, said:

“We have helped people with a huge range of issues since lockdown, but we know that as the furlough scheme draws to an end, lots of people may be feeling worried and need advice.

“If you’re at risk of redundancy, it’s important to know you do have rights to help protect you from unfair dismissal and to ensure you’re paid what you’re owed.

“It’s completely understandable that you may find the rules and procedures overwhelming, but you don’t have to face redundancy alone. We are here to help.”

For information and advice, contact Citizens Advice Ipswich Adviceline on 0300 330 1151.

Citizens Advice Ipswich’s seven things to check if you’re at risk of redundancy

1. Check if your redundancy is fair. There are rules to protect you from being discriminated against, and for being picked for redundancy due to an unfair reason.
For example, although you can be made redundant while pregnant or on maternity leave, you cannot be made redundant because you’re pregnant or on maternity leave. If you are this counts as “automatic unfair dismissal” and discrimination.
Examples of unfair reasons for redundancy can include being picked because you work part-time or you made a complaint about health and safety.
See Check if your redundancy is fair on our public website citizensadvice.org.uk for more information.

2. Check how much redundancy pay you get. You’re entitled to statutory redundancy pay, which is the minimum the law says you’re entitled to, if you’ve been an employee for two years. The amount you will get depends on your age and how long you have worked for the company. You won’t get statutory redundancy pay if you’ve worked for the company for less than two years, are self-employed or are in certain professions such as the armed forces or police.
You may also lose out on statutory redundancy pay if you turn down a suitable alternative job from your employer without a good reason. Your employer may pay extra money on top of the statutory amount you’re entitled to – this is called contractual redundancy pay. Some employees may be entitled to contractual redundancy pay even though they are not entitled to statutory redundancy pay.

3. Furloughed? Make sure you get 100% redundancy pay. If you were furloughed and then made redundant, your redundancy pay should be based on your normal wage.
If you were paid 80% of your wages while on furlough, your redundancy pay should be based on your full wage.

4. Check your notice period. If you’ve worked for your employer for at least a month you’re entitled to a paid statutory notice period. If you’ve worked there for more than a month but less than two years, you have to be given a week’s notice. For two years or more, it’s a week for each full year you have worked, up to a maximum of 12 weeks. You may be entitled to a longer notice period as part of your employment contract. Your notice period only starts when your employer says you’ll be made redundant and gives you a finishing date – not when your employer says you’re at risk of redundancy.
Your employer might decide to give you notice pay instead of your notice period – this is called ‘pay in lieu of notice’.

5. Check your holiday pay. You’ll be paid for any holiday you have left over when you leave. This should be at your normal rate’s pay, even if you’re currently furloughed on 80% of your pay. You can ask to take holiday during your notice period, but it’s up to your employer to decide if you can take it then. Your employer can also tell you to use up any holiday you have left over, but they must give you you notice. The notice must be at least twice as long as the holiday they want you to take.

6. You might be entitled to paid time off to look for work. If you’ve worked for your employer for two years at the end of your notice period, you’re likely to be entitled to ‘reasonable’ time off to apply for jobs or go on training. You can take the time off at any time in normal working hours and your employer can’t ask you to rearrange your work hours to make up the time off. When taking time off to look for work, you’ll be paid at your normal hourly rate, but only for up to 40% of a week’s work – for instance for up to two days if you work a five day week. See preparing for after redundancy for more information.

7. Check if you’ve got legal help via your home insurance. Often people get ‘legal expenses cover’ as part of their home insurance package, but many don’t realise they can get free legal help to challenge their redundancy if they think it’s discriminatory or unfair. It’s worth checking the terms and conditions and speaking to your insurer if unsure.

If you have a trade union at work, you could also contact them. Your union can help you work out if you’ve got a claim, and support you through the process, for example by going to meetings with you or negotiating on your behalf.

You can visit Citizens Advice’s pages on leaving a job for further information and advice.

Recruiting:

We are pleased to announce that Citizens Advice Ipswich are currently recruiting to expand our large vibrant team, due to increased demands on our services.

Exciting opportunities have arisen in several areas of the charity’s work:

· We are looking for Advisers to provide support and guidance to the people in our local community through face to face, telephone and email channels.

· We are looking for Community Advisers to join the Social Prescribing Connect for Health Team, working in partnership with GP surgeries and health care professionals throughout the Ipswich area

· We are looking for Money Advisers to join the team that provides support and guidance to those in financial hardship

· We are looking for Administrative support for the charity

All posts are paid positions to complement our team of volunteers and will initially be on a 12-month fixed-term basis subject to funding.

You will be provided with full training for any role undertaken and encouraged to develop your skills and knowledge in a supportive, team environment. Once trained you will be undertaking rewarding work that makes a real difference to the people within our community.

To be a successful applicant, you will have a passion for helping others with the problems they face, enjoy working with like-minded people, know how to actively listen and be willing to provide customer service to the highest level.

If you have the skills that would benefit the work we deliver, and enjoy the challenge of supporting others in difficult times, then please contact us (details below) and complete an application form.

Please contact:
Citizens Advice Ipswich
19 Tower Street,
Ipswich
IP1 3BE

email: Administration@Ipswichcab.org.uk

Tel: 01473 219770

Completed applications to be received by 14/08/2020

Charities call for council tax reform ahead of August debt D-Day

money
Photo by Negative Space from StockSnap

Government changes could risk creating a debt D-Day of 23 August

Over 1.3 million households nationally are likely to have built up council tax arrears because of coronavirus

Carers and people who’ve been shielding are likely to be hit hardest

Following legislation that came into effect on Wednesday 24 June, the ban on face-to-face bailiff collection will now come to an end on 23 August. This is the same day as protections from eviction end for people in the private rented sector and comes at a time when redundancies are expected to rise.

According to figures from the Local Government Association, over £500m of council tax has gone unpaid during the coronavirus outbreak, a figure which could mean over 1.3million households in council tax arrears. While many councils have been supporting residents during the pandemic, their precarious financial position – and the government’s restrictive rules – may leave them little choice about calling in the bailiffs in August.

Citizens Advice in Ipswich, Babergh and Mid Suffolk are pleased that the Shared Revenues Partnership that is in charge of Council Tax Collections for these three Councils have signed up to the Citizen Advice Council Tax protocol. This shows a commitment to making council tax collection fairer. But the current government regulations tie their hands on how fair and flexible they can be – that’s why we’re calling for reforms of these rules.

We will work with the Shared Revenues Partnership to support residents who have fallen behind with payments in these difficult times with the aim of reducing the need for formal enforcement proceedings which can ramp up the costs and make clearing the debt even more difficult.

Since January, the 3 local Citizens Advice have dealt with over 330 issues of council tax arrears (Ipswich has dealt with over 187 issues of council tax arrears) and we know that figure will rise when the Councils start to contact households who have fallen behind.

Nicky Willshere Chief Executive at Citizens Advice Ipswich said:

“The more that can be done to support households in arrears BEFORE bailiffs are called in to play, the more cost-effective and efficient the process can be. We continue to urge the Councils to use Bailiff enforcement as a LAST RESORT rather than an automatic first step.”

Residents really don’t need to worry alone – we are here to help. We have teams of qualified Money Advisers ready to support with these and other debts. We can also help households make claims for Council Tax Reduction or Discretionary Housing Payments”

Research from Citizens Advice has shown that council tax arrears have hit some groups particularly hard. People who are behind on their council tax because of Covid-19 are twice as likely to have been shielding or at increased risk of the virus. They are also four times more likely to be caring for older family members.

The UK’s three largest debt charities – Citizens Advice, Money Advice Trust and Stepchange – last week wrote to the Local Government Minister to call for urgent action on council tax. The charities are urging the government to implement simple measures that could protect millions of people from the prospect of spiralling council tax debt.

The charities are warning of potentially huge problems for those behind on council tax. Outdated government regulations mean councils often resort to bailiffs to collect outstanding debts. These rules drive councils to use court-based enforcement to recover council tax arrears, which is both harmful and inefficient. In 2018-19, the use of bailiffs added £200 million of fees to people’s debts, but councils recovered less than 30p out of every pound of debt referred. Councils are also the largest users of bailiffs – 1.4 million council tax debts were passed to bailiffs by councils in England and Wales in 2018/19.

Central government reform is needed to resolve this problem before the bailiff ban is lifted. The charities are calling for simple changes to the council tax regulations to give councils more flexibility to recover debts outside the court process. This decision can be enacted by ministers without taking up precious parliamentary time and has been supported by local councils.

Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“The government now has a two-month window of opportunity to make changes to council tax collection that will help millions of people facing the prospect of spiralling debt. Over the last few years, Citizens Advice has helped hundreds of thousands of people with council tax arrears.

“Using bailiffs to collect debts is a blunt tool that’s extraordinarily damaging to those on the receiving end, and economically ineffective for councils. Former government ministers, backbenchers, charities, campaigners and councils themselves are lining up to call for change on this issue.

“People struggling with their council tax bills could now face a nervous summer waiting for the knock at the door. The government must take the opportunity to act to help people avoid this.”

Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, said:

“There is an urgent need for changes to the way that council tax is collected before bailiff visits are allowed to resume. The government must act to change the rules to ensure local authorities collect council tax debts in a fair and compassionate way, giving people the time they need to repay without unnecessarily resorting to bailiffs.

“Sadly, millions of people have already fallen behind with their bills – these changes are needed now to prevent a bad financial situation being made worse by heavy-handed debt collection practices.”

Phil Andrew, chief executive of StepChange Debt Charity, said:

“As things stand, there is a fundamental disconnect between the way in which enforcement against debts like council tax is being restarted and the way in which regulated lenders are expected and required to behave by the FCA, with a clear focus on realistic affordability and fair treatment. It’s simply not right that, after everything we’ve experienced through the pandemic, the resumption of council tax debt collection and enforcement seems set to resume on a “business as usual” basis.

“Improving council tax debt collection needs to be part of the Government’s wider post-Covid financial recovery strategy. If ever there was a time to grasp the nettle and reform the outdated mechanisms that hinder local authorities from adopting a more compassionate, flexible and realistic way of reaching affordable repayment plans on council tax, now is surely that moment.”