ROSSENDALE BOROUGH COUNCIL SUNDRY DEBT MANAGEMENT - POLICY STATEMENT

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1 ROSSENDALE BOROUGH COUNCIL SUNDRY DEBT MANAGEMENT - POLICY STATEMENT 1. Introduction 1.1. The principal objective for any debt recovery policy must be the maximum conversion of outstanding debt into cash flow and to minimise the incidence of bad debt write-off. A local authority, in introducing such a policy, must also incorporate the requirements of efficiency and value for money The implementation of a debt recovery policy must take into account the nature of service users/debtors across the whole Authority. It is therefore of equal importance that Services have a clear strategy for managing their debts within the overall parameters set by this policy In developing the policy the underlying intention is to formulate a cohesive approach to debt recovery which sets out good practice aimed at both limiting the creation of debt and increasing the effectiveness of debt recovery action. Debt arises when agreement is reached and it should be recognised that the recovery process should also begin at this stage. These objectives require that the mechanisms for incurring debt are addressed and that bureaucracy is reduced when recovery action is pursued as well as targeting resources to the point where they will be most effective There will be regular monitoring of performance in relation to debt recovery across the Council to ensure that where necessary, procedures are varied and improvements introduced as appropriate Although the issue of debt is one which can involve conflict between the Authority and its service users/contractors, those dealing with debt on behalf of the Authority should always, in applying this policy, adopt the purpose and objectives of the Authority and bear in mind at all times that the recovery of debt does not exclude the Council s corporate objectives and customer service standards It is the underlying principle of this Policy Statement that each debt belongs to the Service area to which the money is due. Those engaged in recovering debt are merely providing a service to the main frontline Services The Council s largest area of debt relates to Council Tax and National Non Domestic Rates (NNDR). This guide specifically relates to Sundry debt, a separate guide has been prepared specifically for Council Tax and NNDR.

2 2. Responsibility for Debt Recovery 2.1. Council sundry debt is pursued through the following processes: Exchequer Services, Service area, Legal Services Within sundry debtors the main focus for debt recovery is with Exchequer Services through invoicing and reminder notices, the originating service and finally Legal Services, through legal notices and ultimately Court action. 3. Incurring Sundry Debt 3.1. Prior to allowing credit for provision of goods or services credit checks should be made where appropriate to establish the purchaser s ability to pay Easily accessible records should be maintained to enable those entering into such agreements on behalf of the Council to ascertain if the prospective client has a poor debt record with the Council. Such records must be fully compatible with the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act Credit worthiness checks such as those outlined above are aimed at preventing an outstanding debt developing into a potential bad debt and thus avoiding additional costs arising through debt recovery and at worst, writing the debt off. In all cases, payment in advance of service given should be considered normal Council practice When taking orders, full details should be recorded and these should include, where relevant, bank account numbers, building society reference numbers, sort code details, as well as addresses and details of any property (owned/occupied) where a concern exists in relation to the debt to be incurred for whatever reason. Proof of addresses should be obtained through for example the production of utility bills, or by carrying out checks at Companies House in the case of a limited company (Legal Services can be contacted to carry out Companies House checks). The greater the credit sum allowed the more detailed the information taken should be Where an officer becomes aware that a customer may be suffering financial difficulties they should arrange for suitable action to be taken immediately and notify other relevant parts of the Authority via Exchequer Services, as the central contact Wherever appropriate Services should obtain a signed agreement from the debtor prior to the provision of goods or services. Standard form agreements should be used where similar types of goods/services are provided on a regular basis. Where it is not possible to obtain a signed agreement for Council services, contracting departments should ensure that they receive prepayment prior to the delivery of the service. Where contracts exist contract terms should be regularly reviewed to ensure that potential methods of recovery are maximised. The legal remedy of set-off should be included in all commercial contracts.

3 3.7. In applying the principles outlined in these paragraphs, discretion remains with the local Service Manager to vary practices depending upon the circumstances and the services to be provided. In particular it is acknowledged that different considerations apply when providing services of a social nature to vulnerable members of the community. 4. Sundry Invoices Issue of Sundry invoices 4.1. Where credit facilities are given or when a debt becomes due to the Authority a sundry debtor invoice must be dispatched as soon as possible. Details appearing on the invoice should be checked, especially the name and address. Full details of the debt should be included in the invoice description to avoid unnecessary disputes arising All contracts and invoices should be clearly marked to the effect that until paid in full, the Council retains title to the goods supplied The standard Council policy for the retention of documents applies. It is vital that all documents, including invoices relating to the debt are retained until such time as the invoice has been settled ie. when full payment has been cleared through the Council s bank account. Invoices should not be destroyed upon the receipt of a cheque Where an agreement has been reached allowing for payment by instalment, related prime documents such as the invoice and signed customer orders must be retained until the final payment has been received and successfully processed Any document destruction policy operated by each Service area appropriate should be reviewed to ensure that the above criteria can be met in all circumstances All sundry invoices will specify the date due for payment. The Councils standard term is that payment is due immediately on receipt of the invoice The Council reserves the right to charge interest at base rate plus 5% if payment is not received within the due date, pursuant to section 69 of the Country Court Act Payment of Invoices 4.8. All invoices issued will request debtors to make payment via their bank or by sending cheques/postal orders directly to the Head of Financial Services. Payment by cash is not encouraged due to the cost and risks associated with the handling of cash and is therefore only accepted in exceptional circumstances. Payments may also be made by Direct Debit (either in full or where payment is previously agreed by instalments). Payments may also be made by any major credit/debit card where economically viable and appropriate receipting facilities have been installed Facilities to pay via credit/debit card are widely available throughout the Council including the use of automated telephone payments and the Council s

4 website. Further information on this can be obtained from Exchequer Services Debtors are expected to pay invoices within the due date for payment, following which the recovery process will commence automatically All income received must be banked promptly and intact into an official Council account according to guidance issued by Exchequer services. Payment by Instalments Requests for payment of outstanding invoices by instalments should be dealt with at the first instance by the Service area unless the debt has already been referred to Legal Services. Where necessary, Legal Services will advise the Service area, in consultation with Exchequer Services, on the most effective and efficient means of setting this up. The timescale for repayment of the debt should be as short as possible with a maximum period of 12 months The Council reserves the right to charge the standard rate of interest (i.e. as noted in 4.7 above) on any commercial debt which is being paid by instalments. Consideration should be given to whether interest should be charged on instalment arrangements of a non-commercial nature All instalment schedules are checked by Exchequer Services to ensure they are maintained in accordance with their agreed terms. Sundry Invoice Queries and disputes In order that the sundry debt recovery process is not suspended unnecessarily it is vital that any query is dealt with urgently and that a response is made within two working days of the receipt of the query from the customer. Where a query is subsequently made to the Service area, Exchequer Services must be informed if the query is relevant to avoid unnecessary legal action. It is the responsibility of the Service area to resolve any query from debtors When a hold is placed on recovery action, Exchequer or Legal Services will remove it after four weeks, unless informed of ongoing dialogue between the Service area and debtor Copies of all associated correspondence arising from queries and disputes and/or details of actions taken following the query should be retained at source and where appropriate forwarded to Exchequer Services/Legal Services should there be subsequent debt recovery action Where the query results in the need for the original invoice to be cancelled, part cancelled or otherwise amended, instructions should be issued to Exchequer Services for any necessary credit notes or amendments. These must be made promptly to avoid further unnecessary communication Where an invoice is queried and arrangements are entered into which substantially differ from the original basis of the agreement, this must be recorded in writing and sent to the debtor as a matter of course in letter form. Appropriate action must also to be taken to inform all relevant people.

5 4.20. Invoices should predominantly show the point of contact within the Service area so that queries can be answered at source and with minimum delay As a future development, the Council will consider the use of the Council s One Stop Shop or Customer Contact Number for dealing with and resolving queries from customers. 5. Accounting arrangements for sundry invoices 5.1. The appropriate revenue code(s) will in most cases be credited when the sundry invoice is raised via a feeder file from the sundry debtors system to the general ledger. Should an invoice include a VAT element this must be coded accordingly The recording of a credit in the general ledger does not indicate that the invoice has been paid. 6. Debts Small Value Debts 6.1. Where the value of goods or services provided is less than 100 whenever possible and practicable prepayment should be obtained before the goods or services are provided. Normal accounting procedures should be followed The value of 100 will be reviewed annually and individual services may wish to set a higher level Where payment is made by cheque, receipts shall be provided when requested by the service user. All income received must be banked as soon as possible. 7. Sundry Debt Recovery pre legal action 7.1. The present standard sequence for reminders and referrals is as follows: First Reminder after 3 weeks Final Reminder after a further 2 weeks 7.2. If after a further 2 weeks, there is no response to the final reminder, legal action will be considered. This will take the form of a referral action to be taken by the in-house Legal team. Other recovery methods that the Council may consider are either the use of a debt collection agency and private sector

6 solicitors. At the point of any of these referral methods a report will be sent to the originating Service area When the Service area receives this report, in appropriate circumstances the Service area should make a telephone call to the debtor. The purpose of such calls would be two-fold: i. To remind the debtor that the debt is outstanding and take any necessary steps to achieve payment: ii. To ascertain whether other action should be taken prior to legal action being pursued (i.e. appointing a tracing agent or write off) 7.4. Exchequer & Legal Services will assess the likely success of appointing the services of an External Debt Collection Agent Standard operating procedures and protocols will be drawn up with any Collection Agent in consultation with the Services to ensure that this service works as effectively as possible. Exchequer & Legal Services act as liaison with the Agent and will agree the circumstances in which debts due will not be referred to an agency but will be dealt with by Legal services The value level at which debts will be referred by the Exchequer to Legal Services or to other debt collection agencies is currently and will be reviewed on an annual basis, by the Head of Financial Services in consultation with The Head of Legal Services The standard sequence for reminders and referrals outlined above may be varied to suit the individual requirement of the originating Service as appropriate. Such variations will be agreed in advance and subject to the approval of Exchequer Services. 8. Legal Action 8.1. Legal Services which forms part of Resources Directorate shall in consultation with the originating Service be responsible for all legal proceedings on behalf of the Authority Legal action will only commence if advised by the originating Service area. No action will be taken unless instructed and the necessary information is provided to Exchequer Services to enable them to proceed Where no reply has been received to the final reminder, Exchequer Services will either consult the originating Service area if they require the necessary Court action If legal action is commenced and the debtor files a defence or counter claim, the matter will be referred back to the originating Service area for instructions. If the defence is accepted the action will be discontinued and the debt cancelled. Should the debtor make an offer the originating Service area will be informed and instructions taken.

7 8.5. Where the debt in question is less than 15,000 it will be automatically dealt with under the County Court claims procedures. If the debt is in excess of 15,000 it will be dealt with in the High Court 8.6. Where judgment is entered and the defendant fails to comply with the terms of the Court judgement the most suitable method of enforcement will be used Services should, where appropriate, consider other methods of resolution rather than Court proceedings and in particular, whether negotiation, arbitration or adjudication is a more effective way of proceeding Should a service department not wish to pursue a debt through legal channels a provision for the lost income should be made immediately by The Head of Financial Services on notification by Exchequer Services 9. Sundry Debt write-off 9.1. It is crucial that old debts do not block the system of debt recovery and therefore procedures for regular reviewing of debts must be established. The various options available should be considered in relation to any debt six months after the debt has been referred to Exchequer Services. Those debts in respect of which collection is unrealistic should be resolved in order to prevent undue time and expense being wasted Debt will be referred to the Service area for write off when: i. A liquidator (or a receiver in relation to an individual) has been appointed and there is no prospect of recovery of the debt; ii. Following legal action judgment is not awarded and cancellation is not appropriate; iii. There is no prospect of recovery through legal action 9.3. To simplify write off procedures the Head of Service for each Service area in consultation with Exchequer Services and with the final approval the Head of Financial Services shall be entitled to write off debts up to 5,000 and should do so in the circumstances outlined in 9.2 above. Services should consider having a separate statement outlining how this will operate within the Service area In other cases debt write off will be considered when in the opinion of the originating Service area, the relevant Head of Service, Exchequer Services and Head of Financial Services there is no realistic prospect of debt recovery being successful Any debts above 5,000 can only be written off with Cabinet approval. A report will be presented to the Cabinet seeking write off of those debts over 5,000 on at least a six monthly basis. Limitation for Debt Recovery 9.6. Under the Limitation Act 1980 no legal recovery action can take place six years after the date the debt became due. This is translated as six years from

8 the date of the invoice, which is the commonly used date and after six years a debt is classed as statute barred Each February and August a report will be submitted to the Executive Director of Resources detailing all outstanding debts that will be over six years old by the 31 st March. This report will state which recovery stage has been reached and the likelihood of the debt being collected. 10. Review/Monitoring This policy will be reviewed annually As part of the Council s performance framework and to assist in reviewing the Council s debt collection performance the following statistics are to be produced on a monthly basis: i. Services total debt by aged analysis ii. Services total debt by value iii. Debtor days per month iv. Summary of debts by current recovery status This will enable those involved in debt recovery both at Service level, Exchequer and Legal teams to target debt recovery action where it will be most effective and to evaluate the potential impact on the services from the adverse impact of debts over 180 days (6 months) In addition, each quarter a summary performance report will be sent to the Head of Finance to monitor progress against the recovery targets Exchequer and Legal Services will organise an awareness/raising-training programme for services to highlight changes to the policy statement and to try and improve practice across the Council.

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