Shepway District Council Income and Debt Management Policy

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1 Shepway District Council Income and Debt Management Policy Appendix 1 Introduction The council has a duty to ensure that all revenue due to the council is collected efficiently and effectively for the benefit of all the council taxpayers. It is essential to the council that a standardised system is in place for both financial stewardship and audit purposes. Pre-payment type income is excluded from this policy. In striving to continually improve collection and recovery performance the council recognises that some people do not pay their debts for a variety of reasons. This may include poverty or other financial hardship, which the council will endeavour to balance against its duty to collect. Conversely, the policy aims to take a robust approach to those who can pay but won t pay. The council also believes that its debt collection and recovery policy should be fair to everyone notwithstanding their age, race, gender, disability, sexuality or religious belief. The need for people in debt to communicate their status is important. Where a person makes contact their circumstances will be considered with a view to agreeing a reasonable payment arrangement. Consideration will be given to minimising recovery action within statutory requirements. Where people fail to make contact or maintain any agreed arrangement recovery action will continue. This policy details the council s corporate approach to recovery. Best practice will be applied to all debt collection and recovery activities within appropriate legal powers. Aims of the Policy This policy aims to support the council s priorities by: Using cost effective and fair collection and recovery practices in the pursuit of all debts owed to the council, ensuring that those with the means to pay do pay. Ensuring there is a professional, consistent and timely approach to recovery action across all of the council s functions. Considering fully the customer s circumstances and ability to pay and so distinguish between the customer who won t pay and the customer who genuinely can t pay. Improving the levels of income collected by the council and reducing levels of arrears.

2 Ensuring that debts are managed in accordance with legislative provisions and best practice. Treating individuals consistently and fairly regardless of age, sex, race, gender, disability and sexual orientation and to ensure that individual s rights under Data Protection and Human Rights legislation are protected. Links to the Council s Corporate Priorities The council has identified a number of strategic objectives detailed in its Corporate Plan This policy aims to support these priorities by: Ensuring that those customers in financial hardship are provided with advice on relevant benefits, discounts, relief and exemptions to prevent a worsening situation. To consider appropriate payment arrangements dependant on the circumstances of the customer with the priority aim to prevent a customer getting into further arrears. To ensure that when considering any entitlement to discounts, relief or exemption the total debt of the customer to the council is considered. Fair Debt Collection This policy aims to adopt fair debt collection and recovery practices including: Ensuring that bills are accurate, timely and clear. Providing appropriate and easy payment methods. Encouraging people who fall into arrears to contact us and agree to payment arrangements with consideration to their circumstances. Helping to reduce the effect of debt on people on low incomes by informing people of the availability of relevant benefits to ensure that maximum take-up occurs giving them more money available for their financial needs. Consideration of all applications for Council Tax Hardship Relief in a fair and consistent manner in accordance with our policy and write off procedure. Advising people where they can get independent advice with financial problems (e.g. Citizens Advice Bureau).

3 Identifying, through monitoring and customer contact, deliberate nonpayers or those who delay payment and taking timely and effective enforcement action. The processes for Local Taxation are defined in legislation. The processes for the collection of parking fines are defined in legislation. Income/Debts Covered by this Policy The debts covered are shown below together with the council s service responsible for collection and recovery: Income/Debt Collected: Council Tax Business Rates Overpaid Housing Benefit Parking Fines Sundry Debts Including but not limited to: Recovered by: Revenues and Corporate Debt team Corporate Debt Team Corporate Debt Team Corporate Debt Team Corporate Debt Team o Cemeteries and Burials o Grants o Public Hall Hire (Sports etc) o Council Site Hire o Allotments o Sponsorship o Licensing o Pest Control o Refuge Collection o Fixed Penalties o Dog Control o Building Control o Rent Deposits o Rechargeable Works o Leaseholds The policy will apply to all units of the council and focus on collecting the charge set rather than how the charge is arrived at. Ability to pay is a paramount concern when considering debt recovery.

4 For Council Tax and Housing Rent, statutory reductions or benefits are provided on application which is designed to offset the effects of low income on ability to pay. Every effort will also be made to identify benefits that may be payable to customers and the council will work with the CAB, Pension Service and other agencies to identify such opportunities. Charging policy, statutory or discretionary, can never completely remove the difficulties faced by some people and families on low incomes. The approach to recovery will therefore be sensitive to individual circumstances and take into account multiple debts owed within statutory limitations. The approach to recovery will consider the impact of failure to collect the debts due to the council on the other taxpayers within the district. Customers will be made aware of priority debts and encouraged to change their financial approach accordingly. Where appropriate these customers will be provided with details of debt counselling services All income collection and recovery services will adhere to the council s customer charter with regard to service standards. The Legal and Policy Framework for Recovery The council has a duty to ensure cost effective billing, collection and recovery of all sums due to it. This policy is in addition to existing legislation and is designed to enhance the procedures already in place to collect debt. Local Taxation Council Tax recovery procedures are laid down by statute in The Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 and subsequent amendments. Business Rates recovery procedures are laid down by statute in the Non-domestic Rating (Collection and Enforcement) (Local Lists) Regulations 1989 and subsequent amendments. Shepway District Council appoints bailiffs to recover local taxation arrears in accordance with a local code of conduct. Only certificated bailiffs may levy distress for local taxation and fees charged to the customer are governed by legislation. Levying distress allows a bailiff company to identify and remove goods for sale at a public auction to pay the outstanding debts. Housing Benefit Overpayments Housing Benefit overpayments are reclaimed in accordance with Regulations of The Housing Benefit Regulations 2006 (as amended).

5 Parking Fines In addition, there are Housing Benefit Debt Recovery Procedures in place where Housing Benefit has been overpaid but is no longer in payment. These debts are transferred to the sundry debt system and collected as a sundry debt. Discretionary Housing Payment cannot be recovered from ongoing benefit and overpayments are collected as a sundry debt. Parking fines are collected in accordance with the Traffic Management Act 2004 Part 6 Civil Enforcement of Traffic Contraventions. Miscellaneous Income (Sundry Debt) Sundry Debt arrears are collected in accordance with local procedures as there is no statutory process and reflect best practice wherever practicable. Corporate Debt Collection On Sundry Debts that are recovered in the County Court interest may be charged and costs incurred. The customer will be made aware of any additional costs in advance so that they have the opportunity to avoid this wherever possible. All Sundry Debt types must be raised through the debtor system for tracking and forecasting purposes. Legal action through the courts such as a county court judgment or charging order may be used for recovery of these debts. In pursuing legal action, the Corporate Debt Team liaise closely with the Legal Team and take advice from it. Legal action will always follow the correct protocols and rules set out under the Civil Procedure Rules for the recovery and enforcement of debt. For example, prior to issuing court action for debt, there is a protocol for issuing a letter before claim, which sets out the full background of the debt and that this is a final letter before court action.

6 The Policy Full names, contact address and a phone number will be established wherever possible prior to service provision or invoicing/billing. The contact details should be added to the Northgate Record file for Business Rates, Council Tax and Benefits Overpayments. For all other service types the details should be added to E financials or the Parking System All invoices will be raised within 10 working days of all the information being available, by the service area, and will include clear, relevant and full information as to: What the bill is for including date or period of service covered and amount When payment is due How to pay How to contact us if there is a query in relation to the bill or in relation to making payment Statement of intent regarding the application of interest to late payments Where appropriate the service/goods purchased will not be provided until the council is in receipt of the full balance due Council Tax and Business Rates bills are issued in accordance with the relevant legislation as soon as reasonably practicable. The contact of the bill and accompanying information is prescribed in the legislation All letters and reminders will: Be written to comply with the relevant legislation Be written in plain English Explain fully what has been agreed and the consequences of nonpayment Include appropriate contact details Customers will be encouraged to make prompt contact if they disagree with a bill or have difficulty in making payment by the date requested. Contact can be made by: Telephone Letter

7 In person Correspondence regarding payment will be responded to within the standards of the Customer Charter, unless otherwise notified, to prevent unnecessary delays in payment and incorrect debits. Correspondence in relation to discrepancies and disputes will be responded to within the standards of the Customer Charter. If, however, a full response is not going to be possible a holding letter should be issued to the customer advising them when a reply will be completed by. All disputes must be thoroughly investigated by the service area concerned and a response sent within 20 working days. Where appropriate the service area will instruct the Corporate Debt Team to cease recovery action pending the result of the investigation. Customers seeking help due to financial difficulties will, where appropriate: Be given the opportunity to have their ability-to-pay assessed by a face to face interview. Corporate Debt Collection Be encouraged to provide details of their means by listing their income and outgoings. This will assist the council to assess the customer s ability to pay and any unclaimed discounts, reliefs, exemption or benefits. Be encouraged to use the money advice services available from the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Financial Services Authority website or any other similar service. Be given access to the council s interpretation service, if required. Be signposted to benefit advice, where appropriate. If legal proceedings have already commenced, consideration will be given to the various recovery options available and the appropriate method used. Where possible the same method of recovery will be applied to the total debt. If it is found that the customer has the ability to pay, but refuses to pay, then recovery action will continue promptly within the existing methods for the type of debt. If it is found that the customer is suffering severe hardship or has difficulty managing their own affairs, the following will be considered: Can the debt be reduced? Have all relevant benefits, discounts, exemptions and reductions been applied to minimise the debt?

8 Would an appointment to discuss the debt and understand the circumstances of the customer be appropriate? This would include the offer of a home visit if applicable. Where there is no continuous liability an extended payment arrangement may be offered to complete payment beyond the end of the financial year. This is in recognition that the debt is not increasing and the customer is likely to have similar debts to pay at their new address. The arrangement should be monitored on a regular basis and reviewed if necessary. Where there is continuous liability any arrangement will be considered that clears the current financial year within the financial year and continues to reduce the arrears even if payment of the arrears continues beyond the end of the financial year. The arrangement should be monitored on a regular basis and reviewed at the commencement of any new financial year. If only the current year s bill is owed, arrangements should require payment within the financial year (at the latest) whenever possible. The council will reserve the right to continue with legal action, and in the case of Local Taxation, obtain a liability order from the Magistrates Court. This is to protect the council s interests and prevent the debt from becoming statute barred and irrecoverable. Nevertheless regular contact with the customer is encouraged and part payments will be accepted to reduce the overall debt. If a customer is receiving an attachable benefit and the correct legal steps have been taken to make an attachment to the benefit this method of recovery will be taken. The amount deducted is determined by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Customers given time to pay will be advised to contact the council immediately should they experience a change of circumstances affecting their ability to pay. This is to discuss the options available to prevent further recovery action and additional costs. Confirmation of such arrangements shall be made in writing to customers. If a customer fails to co-operate by: refusing to provide details of their means so a sensible arrangement may be agreed; or failing to pay an arrangement on time without contact, Then further recovery action will be taken promptly in the normal way. Limitations on Debt Recovery All bailiffs appointed will operate to the council s code of conduct.

9 Referrals to bailiffs will be instructed where a customer has failed to reply to a statutory 14 day letter advising the case is due to be passed to bailiffs, has failed to pay as arranged or failed to make any contact. Unless otherwise authorised, referrals to collection agencies or bailiffs for debts where there is no power to levy distress, will not be made where this is uneconomic. Where a customer has disputed a debt the case must be fully investigated. Further recovery action may be suspended pending the outcome although any agreed arrangement must be paid. Where there are other issues that impact on a resident being able to pay their debt, for example, physical and mental health issues, substance misuse issues, or other social issues, the council will look at early intervention and tailor making solutions for resolving individual needs and therefore try to prevent debts escalating and further recovery action being necessary. The same approach will be taken where the existence of arrears, and the pursuance of recovery action, is likely to have a significant impact on any children within the household. Procedures and Staff Training Although there are variations in the procedures relating to different debts, they must reflect the council s requirement for a corporate approach to recovering debt as set out in this policy. All staff dealing with income collection and recovery will receive training and be made aware of this policy and its contents. Write Offs All debts will be written off in accordance with the Council s Financial Procedure Rules. Monitoring A quarterly check will be undertaken to ensure invoices are being raised within 10 working days and that invoices comply with criteria as laid down in this policy and where relevant in accordance with legislation. Where standards are not met the relevant Head of Service will be notified. The process will be subject to periodic audits carried out by East Kent Audit Partnership as part of planned audits in service specific areas. Review This policy will be reviewed in line with any changes in legislation and as a minimum on an annual basis. Minor alterations to the policy will be approved

10 by Shepway District Council s Deputy Chief Executive in consultation with the Cabinet Member responsible for Customer Contact. Any substantive alterations to the content of the policy will be approved by Cabinet. December 2013

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