Newcastle City Council Corporate debt policy. December 2013

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1 Newcastle City Council Corporate debt policy December

2 This policy sets out our approach to collecting and recovering debt owed to us by businesses and residents. Introduction Newcastle City Council is required to collect monies from both residents and businesses for a variety of reasons. A high percentage of debt owed to the council comes from multiple debtors who owe council rent, council tax, housing benefit overpayments, and other debt for example garden waste or parking fees. Money that we collect enables us to provide important public services. Income that is not collected or that takes additional effort to collect means fewer resources are available to provide our services. We will try to recover all debts owed to us. This is a fair approach to people who use services and to the majority who pay council tax and business rates on time. We will follow enforcement protocols and procedures to recover monies owed to us and signpost those people genuinely experiencing financial hardship to appropriate advice and support teams in the council or voluntary and community sector (VCS). In undertaking income and debt recovery it is inevitable that we will be required to pursue the recovery of arrears from residents and businesses that may experience difficulty in paying. It is therefore important that we set out how the council manages and collects debts to ensure consistency and best practice in such situations. Our policy identifies where responsibility for collection of different debts lie and sets out the principles and standards in relation to customer contact, recovery processes, repayments and benefit, money and debt advice. It also explains how the council and its partners can offer help, advice and support in the management of debt for our customers. Our policy sets the framework for a consistent and sensitive approach to collecting debt whilst at the same time ensuring that the council continues to maximise income collection. Our policy has been developed in line with the Fairness Commission s recommendations and Financial Inclusion and cooperative council aspirations, as well as our signing of the FINCAN Pledge. Our approach to collecting debt in Newcastle will be fair, consistent and sensitive to individual situations. We will: develop a single view of customers debt implement best practice for collecting and recovering debt to the council ensure that the debt has been raised correctly and in a timely manner make sure that residents and businesses are given clearly itemised invoices or bills setting out the charge, the basis of the charge, methods of payment and council contact details promote financial inclusion and ensure that appropriate advice and support is given where necessary where appropriate, agree payment arrangements with customers develop triggers and measures to provide an opportunity for early intervention and reduce the likelihood of the arrears increasing. Our policy is supported by all council departments, Your Homes Newcastle, and partner organisations that form part of our Financial Inclusion Group. 2

3 This policy covers all debts owed to the council and Appendix 1 summarises the type and priority of the debt. Our approach for avoiding debt The Council s aim is to prevent excessive debt by promoting financial inclusion and budgeting to reduce the impact of poverty. The common approach by the Council and its partners to supporting people to budget and pay their priority debts is described in the draft Corporate Debt Support protocol which is still being developed and can be found in Appendix 8. Where possible the council s preference is to charge for services through prepayment. A number of payment methods, including online payments, are available to make it easy for customers to pay for services. We are looking to develop apps to enable easy payment via smartphones. Services that cannot be charged through prepayment will be invoiced or billed in line with statutory requirements. Where a debt remains unpaid: We will signpost customers to appropriate debt advice and support agencies. We recognise that certain individuals will require more sympathetic and sensitive treatment, for example in the case of recent bereavement, major illness or where the customer requires special assistance in handling their financial affairs. Policy objectives This policy has been developed to provide support to customers over legal or enforcement action. It strives to be firm and will use the full range of collection and recovery methods as appropriate if debts are not paid. The policy operates within the framework of relevant legislation, such as data protection, human rights and statutory regulations and other council policies and internal procedures and protocols, and incorporates the Fairness Commission Values. Policy aims The aims of our policy are to: maximise income for Newcastle City Council, including rent income from properties managed by Your Homes Newcastle make sure that all council tax and rent payers interests are protected by effective debt collection encourage self help be preventative for example offering payment options and to signpost customers with debt issues to debt advice providers in the voluntary sector as well as the council be fair but firm, and ensure consistency in dealing with customers in customers interest, where they consent or where allowable we will share knowledge, information and expertise across the council, including Your Homes Newcastle, to assist both customers and debt collection by adhering to specific Data Sharing Agreements and the Data Protection Act protect and support vulnerable customers 3

4 maximise the use of discretionary funds where appropriate to assist with pressures of welfare reform and localism Our commitment When dealing with customers who owe money to us we will: treat all customers fairly and objectively ensure that there is no discrimination against customers because of their race, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, religious belief, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, age or disability encourage customers to make early contact with us about any debt-related matters use Plain English in all correspondence assist with communication needs where appropriate, including translation and interpreting services coordinate all our correspondence to avoid duplication and reduce costs; ensuring that correspondence with customers refers to and deals with all or similar accounts outstanding, so as to consolidate the debts and clarify the total amount owed, and offering options for payments promote advice and support services available set out our charges clearly. Accessing advice and support The council will advise individuals and/or businesses as to the range of discounts, reliefs and reductions available at both the time an account is issued and in subsequent communications. This information is also available on the council s website. Staff in direct contact with customers will signpost them as to where they can obtain advice on benefits and debt matters appropriate to their needs. The policy has been developed alongside our draft Corporate Debt Support Protocol which aims to prevent debt and supports people who get into debt with the council. It promotes a common financial approach in assisting people to meet their priority debts and promotes the use of the Common Financial Statement (CFS). It also outlines a consistent approach to negotiating repayments on behalf of customers and offers guidelines for those facing serious financial hardship. This protocol is currently being developed with the Advice Compact group and can be found in Appendix 8. We will ensure that all written communications use plain English as the standard wherever possible. We will explain complex terminology when it is required to be used by law. All documents will be issued in a timely manner, in accordance with any statutory timescales. The legal options open to the council in collecting debts and the customer in paying debts will be explained, taking into account the stage of recovery achieved. We will assist people with language and communication needs by offering translation, interpreting and other services when required. Assessing ability to pay 4

5 In pursuing debt recovery, the council will act in accordance with statutory regulations and guidance. It is imperative that the council s approach to debt recovery is responsible and responds to the financial and social vulnerability of residents. The council will take into account individual circumstances and the financial and economic climate that we are operating in. It is also important that any assessment to pay recognises the possibility that customers may be using payday and doorstep lenders or have illegal money arrangements, such as loan sharks in which case a referral could be made to the Illegal Money Lending Team. We are working towards adopting a common approach to assessing a customer s income and expenditure to determine their ability to pay as described in our draft Corporate Debt Support Protocol which is still being developed and can be found in Appendix 8. We will always seek to make realistic arrangements to clear outstanding amounts by regular payments, rather than taking legal and enforcement action. Customers who have single or multiple debts owed to the council will be offered the opportunity of independent debt advice. Provision of information In addition to detailing the amount payable and a description of the charge, the council will include the following information on all accounts: one contact number for enquiries in relation to the account and any outstanding debt all payment options. Where it is necessary to issue recovery documentation such as a reminder or summons following non-payment of an account or because an instalment arrangement has not been adhered to then the council will include the information detailed above on such documents. The council will wherever possible provide information to meet specific communication needs in the following formats: Braille Large Print Audio Tape / disc Translated into a different language. In meeting individual needs the council will, where practical, ensure that individual communication needs are documented so that on-going and future correspondence can be delivered in the appropriate format based on our knowledge of individual customer needs. The council will ensure that wherever possible arrangements are in place to use accredited language translators / interpreters to help people whose first language is not English and British Sign Language interpreters for deaf people. Sharing of information 5

6 The council will ensure that all computer systems used to bill, recover and enforce monies meet statutory requirements. Staff involved in the recovery and enforcement of debt will have received appropriate training in the following: processes for collecting debt and income recovery the use of the Common Financial Statement the use of all applicable computer systems interacting with and supporting vulnerable people how and where to signpost those requiring advice and support our six point plan for safeguarding adults. To be successful and ensure consistency, subject to any limitations imposed by the Data Protection Act (1998) and the Human Rights Act (1998), it will be necessary to establish good working practices and develop information sharing protocols. This means that access to debtors information contained on different systems will be made available to key staff in order that an individual s total debt can be established and properly dealt with. Our recovery processes Where possible the council will look to charge services through pre-payment. Services that cannot be charged through pre-payment will be invoiced or billed in line with statutory requirements which may be through instalment plans or arrangements. At each stage of the recovery process, customers are signposted to debt advice providers in the voluntary sector as well as in the council. Where the debt remains unpaid or if instalment plans or arrangements are broken we will follow the appropriate statutory recovery process dependent upon the type of debt. If the debt has not been recovered through internal recovery methods then, dependent on the type of debt, we may instruct bailiffs or debt recovery companies to recover the debt on our behalf. County Court bailiffs may also be instructed, when appropriate, by HM Courts and Tribunal Service. Our Bailiff Code of Conduct can be found in Appendix 4. For debts owed to YHN, an application for direct payment from DWP may also be made. Consideration will be given to the vulnerability of a customer before we instruct a bailiff or debt recovery company and if we become aware of a vulnerable person once the debt has been passed to a bailiff or debt recovery company we will withdraw and bring the debt back to the council Once a debt has been passed to a bailiff or a debt recovery company the customer may incur further costs. Credit checks may be used to decide the most appropriate course of recovery for a limited number of debts. 6

7 Write off policy The council s common approach to writing off debt is currently being developed and will compliment this policy. The YHN debt write off policy will be applied to all YHN debts. Contacting the council / complaints The corporate complaints procedure can be found in Appendix 7. Our policy in operation For those who can pay, the council will Provide information on how to pay by advising on methods, payment frequencies and at which locations people can pay, see Appendix 2. Encourage automated payment methods wherever possible by Direct Debit which is the most cost efficient option. Develop apps to enable quick and easy payment via smartphones. Make arrangements for the payment of accounts outside of traditional office hours and through the internet and touchtone technology, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Make available the use of online billing and electronic forms. For those who cannot pay, the council will: Inform customers about who can give help and advice, see Appendix 5 and 6. Encourage people to get help from a range of sources. Make referrals to appropriate agencies. Advise what happens if debts are not paid. Partnership working Newcastle City Council is part of the Newcastle Advice Compact and also Newcastle Financial Inclusion Group. In Newcastle there is a range of work underway to promote financial inclusion; to help coordinate this work a multi- agency Financial Inclusion Group has been established, see Appendix 3. Appendices Appendix 1 Appendix 2 Appendix 3 Appendix 4 Appendix 5 Appendix 6 Appendix 7 Appendix 8 Debts owed to the council and prioritisation Payment methods Financial inclusion partnership Bailiff Code of Conduct Advice Centres Advice leaflets Complaints Draft Corporate Debt Support Protocol 7

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