London Borough of Lewisham. Collection Process

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1 London Borough of Lewisham Collection Process Page 1

2 Introduction 1. The Council has a duty to recover outstanding debts and in doing so we want to ensure that our process is fair to everyone, particularly in the current economic climate. With this in mind, the introduction of a corporate debt collection process will ensure we maximise debt collection, are consistent in our approach to collection and help those who experience financial difficulty. 2. This process relates to the following types of debt: Council Tax Housing Benefit Overpayments this occurs when benefit is paid and the claimant is not entitled to some, or all of the Housing Benefit paid Sundry Debts the fees and charges made for a wide and varying range of Council Services such as adult social care. Sundry debts also include loan repayments and salary overpayments Business Rates Parking and moving traffic violation contraventions Commercial rent (Lewisham Homes) The principles of good practice 3. We know people do not pay their debts for a variety of reasons. Some genuinely have difficulty maintaining their payments. In these cases we will make every effort to help. Others may deliberately set out to delay, or not make payments at all. In these situations we will take action to secure and recover payments. Where appropriate we will charge additional fees to cover the cost of the action and reduce the burden on those people who do pay promptly. 4. We will ensure we follow the principles of good practice set out below: Accurate and prompt billing Promote Direct Debit as the default method of payment with a range of other payment options for customers without a bank account Provide advice on ways to reduce bills and maximise income Consider special payment arrangements for those customers experiencing financial difficulties Keep customers informed Take appropriate recovery action Make additional arrangements for Adult Social Care debt Multiple debt management - where the Council is aware of more than one debt owing to the Council (and Lewisham Homes) Review and write off debt where appropriate Page 2

3 Accurate and prompt billing 5. For our process to be effective we will ensure: we produce accurate and clear bills promptly we respond quickly to changes in circumstances and applications for exemptions, discounts, rebates and reliefs we produce clear bills in plain English and show: o o o o what the bill is for and the period of liability the amount due and, where appropriate, the instalment amounts and payment due dates how to make a payment* a contact point for enquiries - including and website details (*In the case of Housing Benefit Overpayments we will also provide the amount of deduction from ongoing benefit if the overpayment is to be collected this way) Promote Direct Debit 6. We know the easier it is to pay, the more likely it is that payment will be made. Direct Debit is the easiest payment method for customers and is the most efficient for the Council which helps keep the cost of collection as low as possible. Where appropriate we will propose Direct Debit as the default method of payment to all customers unless they are unable to pay this way. Where a customer is unable to pay by Direct Debit or it s not appropriate (e.g. for a one off bill) we will provide a choice of convenient methods of payment. 7. The current payment options are Direct Debit, Debit and Credit Cards (allowing payments to be made 24 hours a day, 7 days a week using the automated telephone line or Internet facility) Standing Order, Cheque and Cash at a PayPoint or Post Office. Advice on ways to reduce bills and maximise income 8. When a customer tells us they are having difficulty paying we will offer advice on ways to reduce their bill and maximise their income. We will train our staff involved in the recovery of debts on anti-poverty and social inclusion awareness so they can: inform customers of their entitlement to Housing and Council Tax Benefits, discounts, reliefs and exemptions inform customers of the general availability of other income related benefits such as Job Seeker's owance, Child Tax Credits, Working Tax Credits, Pension Credits and Guarantee Credit refer customers to the Council s partners Voluntary Sector Advice Services for help and advice on all benefit entitlements refer customers who need help and advice on money management matters to the Citizen's Advice Bureau / Money Advice Agency Page 3

4 inform customers who are at an advanced stage of the recovery process, to seek independent help and advice from Citizen's Advice Bureau and/or the local law centres. (See appendix 2 for contact details of Money Advice centres) 9. We welcome the involvement of welfare agencies and recognise the assistance that these organisations can offer both the customer and the Council in prioritising debts and maximising income. We will work with those agencies when required. 10. We will continue to provide a home visiting service for customers who are housebound to assist them to apply for Housing and Council Tax Benefit and to review ongoing entitlement. Special payment arrangements Council Tax / Business Rates 11. The most common arrangement made is for the payment of Council Tax. Some customers experience genuine difficulty paying Council Tax and we recognise the need to agree special payment arrangements that, if possible, reflect their ability to pay as well as the level of debt owed. By helping these customers with special payment arrangements we can try to avoid the need for further recovery action and unnecessary additional costs. 12. We will always try to ensure the special arrangement clears the debt by the end of the financial year. In many cases this will involve recalculating instalments over the remaining months and spreading payments to March if this has not already been done. (See example 1) Example 1 Mrs Johnson paid her April and May instalment by cash on time, but missed her June instalment. Mrs Johnson contacted the Council on receipt of the reminder notice she received for her missing June instalment to say she was having difficulty paying the monthly amount. The Council checked she was in receipt of all the reductions she was entitled to and agreed to spread the total balance outstanding to March if she paid by Direct Debit. Mrs Johnson was happy because it reduced the monthly amount she had to pay and the Council was happy as it meant the debt was paid by the end of the year. 13. In exceptional circumstances we will agree a special payment arrangement which does not clear the debt by the end of the year and in some cases may not even cover the ongoing payments. We may even defer payment for a short period, but this will be regularly reviewed. (See example 2) Example 2 Mr Jones contacted the Council in September to say he was recovering from a major operation which would mean he was off work for 6 months and that his income would reduce by 50% so he would not be able to pay his monthly Direct Debit of 225. Mr Jones instalments were up to date and he had a good payment record. The Council checked he was in receipt of all the reductions he was entitled to but he did not meet any of the criteria for a reduction. The Council agreed a reduced monthly payment of 100 per month to the end of the year. The remaining balance would be carried forward into the new year and spread over the whole year. Mr Jones was happy because he had reduced instalments whilst he was off work and was given the following year to catch up. The Council was happy because the arrangement meant the outstanding debt would reduce when the alternative would have been no payments were received. Page 4

5 14. If we do not know a customer is struggling to pay the debt we cannot help so it is very important that customers get in touch with us as soon as possible when they experience difficulties. The sooner the customer contacts us the more we can help. 15. We will always consider customers circumstances and try to help. However, there will be occasions when we can t help the customer to keep or maintain assets/expenses that they can no longer afford but we may provide a short term arrangement to give them time to sort themselves out. 16. When a customer does not contact us or does not maintain their special payment arrangement we will continue with recovery action. Special payment arrangements - other 17. If a customer has difficulty paying an ongoing debt we will always consider the customers circumstances and in most cases will try to agree a payment arrangement which covers the ongoing amount and reduces the arrears at a reasonable rate. In exceptional circumstances we will agree a short term payment arrangement that does not keep up with the ongoing charge but will review this regularly and look to increase the payments to cover the ongoing charge and reduce the arrears as soon as possible. 18. If a customer has difficulty paying a one off debt we will always consider the customers circumstances and in most cases will try to agree a payment arrangement which reduces the debt at a reasonable rate. 19. If we are aware a customer has the funds to pay the ongoing debt or a one off debt we will not agree a special payment arrangement and we will expect the outstanding amount(s) to be paid when they are due. 20. The Council will not make special payment arrangements for the repayment of loans by officers leaving the Council or for overpaid salary. Keep customers informed 21. We recognise the importance of keeping our customers informed about the recovery process, the consequences of not making payments and where they should go for help and advice. 22. We will always: tell customers what will happen if they don t pay warn customers of action we are about to take tell customers how to contact us ensure that all documents are produced in plain English provide documents in large print and in other formats for example audio tape, computer disk and Braille when requested assist customers with language and sensory communication difficulty by offering a translation service when requested advise customers where to get help and advice about benefits and money matters Take appropriate recovery action 23. We will always take recovery action if a customer does not pay and does not tell us they are having difficulty paying. If the customer tells us soon enough that they are having problems and we agree a special payment arrangement we will not take any further recovery action. Page 5

6 However, if we have started recovery action (i.e. we have sent a court summons) and subsequently make a special payment arrangement we may continue with recovery action and ask the magistrate for a Liability Order but just hold it to protect the Council s position. 24. The table below shows the different types of debt and different methods of recovery. The table indicates which recovery method we are likely to use. In some circumstances the recovery method may differ because of the size of the debt or the customer s circumstances. Debt type Recovery method Used when Council Tax Bill Reminder Final Summons Liability Order Where only part of the reminder notice was paid or where 2 reminders have already been sent 14 day notice Referral to Certified Bailiffs Attachment of Earnings Attachment to applicable benefits Bankruptcy Charging Order Committal to prison used to warn of action and collect additional information Used when payment is not made despite a Liability Order being obtained at Court and we are unable to ascertain employment details, or is not in receipt of a qualifying benefit Used when we know their employer details Used when they are in receipt of a qualifying benefit which entitles us to made deductions at source Used for homeowners with an outstanding debt of 750 or more. Used for homeowners with an outstanding debt of 1000 or more. Used if the council believes the debtor has the means to pay but is wilfully withholding payment. Page 6

7 Business Rates Bill Reminder Final Where payment has been made in accordance with a Reminder notice, but failed to comply with the Statutory Instalments Summons Liability Order Referral to Certificated Bailiffs Used when payment is not made despite a Liability Order being obtained at Court. Sundry Debt exc Adult Social Care Bankruptcy Charging Order Committal to prison Invoice Reminder 1 Reminder 2 Debt Collection Agents County Court Claim Attachment of Earnings Charging Order Used against ratepayers who are also homeowners with an outstanding debt of 750 or more. Used for ratepayers who own a property who have outstanding debt of 1000 or more. Used if the council believes the debtor has the means to pay but is wilfully withholding payment. Used to recover outstanding arrears. Used where a debtor has failed to pay or to dispute the invoice raised. Used when we know their employer details Used for homeowners with an outstanding debt of 1000 or more. Page 7

8 Housing Benefit Overpayment Bankruptcy Third Party Debt Order Warrant of Distress Invoice Reminder 7 Day Letter County Court Claim Attachment of Earnings Used for homeowners with an outstanding debt of 750 or more. Used to recover a judgement debt by freezing or releasing funds from a debtors bank account. Used to recover a judgement debt by use of the County Court Bailiffs. Used where a debtor has failed to pay or to dispute the invoice raised. Used when we know their employer details Social Care debt See - make additional arrangements for social care debt below Charging Order Bankruptcy Third Party Debt Order Warrant of Distress Used for homeowners with an outstanding debt of 1000 or more. Used for homeowners with an outstanding debt of 750 or more. Used to recover a judgement debt by freezing or releasing funds from a debtors bank account. Used to recover a judgement debt by use of the County Court Bailiffs. Page 8

9 Parking Services Penalty Charge Notice for parking or moving traffic contraventions Notice left on vehicle (or posted if identified by CCTV*) Statutory Notice served by post Charge Certificate served by post Notification of debt registration Warrant for recovery granted to the Council Warrant passed to bailiff for recovery 25. Because Council Tax take high volumes of recovery action, reminder and final notices are generated automatically. However, cases can be automatically withheld using hold indicators (e.g. where a special arrangement is in place or work is outstanding). 26. The above table is for guidance only. If a customer is vulnerable (e.g. elderly, seriously ill, mental health issues) and this makes it difficult for them to pay, we will try to avoid recovery action and provide the assistance they need to make payment. We can only do this if we know the customer s circumstances. 27. We will always ensure that the recovery method is appropriate for the amount of debt. 28. If the debt is for an ongoing service provided by the Council which the Council does not have to provide (for example Trade Refuse) we will stop delivering the service until the debt is paid or an acceptable special payment arrangement is made. 29. We will follow the principles of enforcement outlined below: our action will be proportional we will only use the most severe sanctions for the most difficult high value cases our approach will be consistent with the aim of achieving consistency in the advice we give, the use of our powers and in the recovery methods we use our actions will be transparent to help customers to understand what is expected of them and to explain the reasons for taking any recovery action. Make additional arrangements for Social Care debt 30. The way we collect Adult Social Care debt will take into account the vulnerable nature of many of the customers. Although the collection process will be similar to other types of sundry debt we will take additional steps to try and understand the customers personal and financial circumstances so that we can act appropriately in the best interests of the customer, other service users and the Council. Page 9

10 31. We will do the following to collect Adult Social Care debt: Bill Reminder Reminder o Case check with Adult Social Care to ensure we are aware of the customers circumstances o Liaison with relatives where permission has been granted o Visit by appointment to ascertain current situation, check financial assessment and either agree a payment plan or make clear the action that will be taken to collect what s outstanding o Panel review to determine if we collect and how, or to write off, or court of protection, or other Notice of court action Court action payment order, charging order, third party debt order, Enforce action Multiple debt management 32. If we are aware, from discussions with the customer or systems matching, that the customer has multiple debts with the Council (or Lewisham Homes) we will consider those debts in total and try to agree a special payment arrangement. The special arrangement will attempt to maintain ongoing payments and reduce arrears for all debts owed to the Council or Lewisham Homes. See appendix 1 for priority debt guidance. 33. If the customer has multiple debt it is also likely they will owe money to other organisations. We will always refer customers with multiple debt to money advice agencies, see appendix 2. Review and write off of debt 34. We will always try to collect an outstanding debt and the action set out in this process will help to minimise irrecoverable debt. However, there may be occasions when, despite our best efforts, it is considered impractical or uneconomical to pursue what is outstanding. 35. We will monitor all outstanding debts to ensure that they are recoverable and will take prompt action when irrecoverable debts are identified to write them off in accordance with our financial regulations. Only Mayor and Cabinet and the Executive Directors of Resources and Customer Services can agree the write off of debt. The 'writing off' of any debts will not rule out recovery action being reinstated in the event that a customer's circumstances change. Monitoring 36. We will monitor the implementation of the process to ensure that it is effective. Monitoring will include: quality checks on work processes to ensure fairness and consistency audit and quality checks on work processed by individuals rate of collection to identify our performance against the targets set for the collection of debts number of cases at each stage of the recovery process complaints received to assist us with making service improvements setting of targets to improve performance Page 10

11 customer surveys regular monitoring of Service Level Agreements Analysis of Advice Centre feedback/surveys to ensure that the service is customer focused benchmark our services with other local authorities Review of this process 37. We are committed to continuous improvement and so it is inevitable that new approaches and ways of working will be introduced. This process will be reviewed periodically to enable it to be updated where necessary and to take into account any service improvements or changes. Page 11

12 Advice on priority debts from the Citizens Advice Bureau Appendix 1 The following advice is supplied to debtors by the Citizens Advice Bureau for information. It does not override this corporate debt process. Priority debts debts are important, but some debts are more pressing than others. Priority debts are debts owed to creditors who can take the strongest legal actions against you if you do not pay. It is not the size of the debt that makes it a priority, but what the creditors can do to recover their money. Priority debts are: o Mortgage arrears o Rent arrears o Council Tax and Rates o Water rates o Gas and electricity o Unpaid Magistrate Court fines o Unpaid maintenance and child support o Income Tax and VAT/National Insurance o Telephone o Hire Purchase for goods that are essential e.g. a car needed for work If you have any of the debts above, you must deal with them before you offer to repay any of your non-priority debts. Non-priority debts Examples of non-priority debts are: o Credit Card and Store Card arrears o Catalogue arrears o Bank overdrafts and loans o Hire Purchase for goods that aren t essential e.g. a television o Money borrowed from family and friends You cannot be imprisoned for not paying non-priority debts. You are unlikely to lose your home or your essential goods. However, if you make no offers to pay, without explaining why, the creditors will take you to court. If you still fail to pay when the court has ordered it, the creditors can take further action for example, they can get another court order allowing them to send bailiffs in. Page 12

13 advice&support APPENDIX 2 Age Concern information and advice service Citizens Advice Bureau Citizens Advice Bureau Community Legal Centre DeafPLUS (c/o Remark!) (Lewisham) 10 Catford Broadway SE6 4SP (Greenwich) Monday Friday 10am 1pm Old Dover RD SE3 (Catford & Sydenham) 10am 4pm 120 Rushey Green, SE6 299 Kirkdale, SE (Lewisham) Deptford Bus Park, 8 Evelyn Court, Grinstead Rd SE Legal and welfare rights advice. 18 Sydenham Rd SE Greenwich Quay, Clarence Rd, Deptford SE8, Jessica Wilde, minicom , MSN SMS Fax/voice , Lewisham Law Centre Drop in, Tues and Thur 10am 1pm (ring first) 28 Deptford High St SE Lewisham Money Advice Centre Lewisham Pensions Service, Pensions advice, Mon 9.30am 1.30pm, AccessPoint, Laurence House,Catford SE6; Wed am, Lewisham Library, Lewisham High St SE CLUB: ADVICE, REFERA L Deptford Centre, 21 Deptford Broadway SE New Cross Centre, Saints, Monon Rd SE Honor Oak Centre, 1 3 Forman House, Frendsbury Rd SE Downham Centre, 424 Downham Way BR Page 13

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