Vela Debt Recovery Policy

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1 Vela Debt Recovery Policy Overview The scope of this policy is to establish a framework for the recovery of a range of debts which includes:- current and former tenant arrears current and former recharge debt leasehold and shared ownership debts sundry debts (i.e. care call to private customers) commercial debts including shops The policy has been developed with reference to the current economic climate and seeks to strike a balance between the financial needs of the Company and the social needs of our customers. For customers coping with debt, this can be an anxious experience and we will provide support and help to customers in order to help sustain tenancies, strengthening community cohesion. There are legislative requirements to the recovery of debts which must be complied with in order to avoid risking the Company s reputation in Court as well as avoiding unnecessary legal disputes. This policy should be read in conjunction with the Vela Housing Management Strategy, Vela Inclusion Strategy, Rent Setting Policy, Recharge Policy, Homeloss Policy as well as related procedures. Aims and Controls This policy therefore aims to:- Maximise income by preventing and controlling rent arrears. Comply with legal requirements, Company Standing Orders and Financial regulations Ensure appropriate procedures are in place where charges need to be raised Establish a framework for the recovery, amendment and monitoring of accounts.

2 The key controls in the Policy are:- All monies are billed in accordance with approved rent and charges. Effective action is taken to pursue debts within defined timescales Debts are only written off under approved powers and are properly accounted for. Income documents are retained for statutory periods. Policy Key Principles Whilst there are differences between the types of services charged for and the customers receiving those services, there are some elements of debt recovery that are common to all types of debts and the following general principles are set out in this section. This section highlights our commitments and sets out the policy approach to the way in which income collection will be maximised through a preventative approach, firm enforcement action and effective monitoring arrangements. Our policy is that we will carry out debt recovery in a firm but fair manner whilst being sensitive and non-threatening. Our Key principles are broken down into the following sections:- Access and Information Rent Obligations Prioritisation of Debt Recovery approach Payment deductions Liaison with other agencies/partners Support Joint tenancies Incentives Credits Rehousing requests Access and information We will promote and encourage a wide range of cost effective and accessible payment methods. We will contact customers at the earliest possible stage providing clear information on debts outstanding. We will inform tenants promptly on any changes to their rent charges and who to contact regarding a query relating to any debt owed. We will ensure that we contact customers via

3 their preferred means of contact and make all reasonable attempts to contact via letter, telephone, text, home visit, out of hours contact etc. We will provide clear concise information on debts owed, and will provide on demand statements of customers current rent accounts. We will actively promote on line statements for all customers to view their rent account. Where customer s current accounts are in arrears we will send out quarterly rent statements. We will ensure that information provided is accurate, timely and in a format readily understandable by customers. We will publish information about advice and assistance available. We will be pro-active in helping customers and encourage them to contact the Company at the earliest opportunity if they are having difficulty paying. We will provide an accessible service and confidential facilities to discuss outstanding debts. We will ensure that we protect customer s confidentiality around their accounts by asking data protection questions following contact and request for information. Where customers leave their home for long periods of time such as being detained in prison, we will provide advice on housing benefit entitlement and homeless legislation in order to avoid homes being empty for long periods of time and reducing any debts which may accrue. Rent obligations We will make customers aware of their obligation to pay rent and service charges. We will be clear around what is included within their rental charge and the frequency of rent payments and the date that rent is due. We will also make clear to all customers any benefit entitlements. It is our approach to pursue all rent owed including debts owed by customers as a consequence of the bedroom tax. This is the amount of benefit that will be reduced from a customer s benefit if they have one or more spare rooms. Please refer to section on support for how Vela will help to minimise the impact of welfare reforms on our customers.

4 Prioritisation of debt Where tenants have more than one debt we will prioritise these for recovery. The order of debt recovery for tenants and former tenants will be:- Current tenant rent arrears Current tenant recharges including court fees Former tenant arrears Former tenant recharges The arrangements to pay debts will recognise the multiple types of debt and the allocation of payments made will be in order of the priority indicated above if a customer has not made themselves specific payments to accounts. Recovery approach We will ensure that all reasonable attempts to recover debts are made and will encourage regular payments. We will ask customers for payment in full to clear outstanding balances. However, customers will be given an opportunity to negotiate an agreed repayment plan before action is taken where full payment cannot be made. In setting repayment accounts we will take into consideration the overall debt owed and not merely the money we are owed; a customer s financial circumstances and any recommendations from advice agencies. A financial statement will be completed with income and expenditure checks to establish available disposable income. Action will be put on hold if the repayment plan is adhered to. We will keep timescales to a minimum before and between actions ensuring that action is taken promptly to prevent debt increasing. We will contact customers via their preferred contact method and where customers are vulnerable we will take extra steps to provide support including liaison with any support agencies. Customers will be advised of the consequences of non-payment and where repayment agreements are not adhered to, the next stage in enforcement action will be taken. Eviction action will always be the last resort, but where arrears continue to rise and all other efforts to resolve the situation have failed, then eviction action is the ultimate sanction. A senior officer will review all cases prior to eviction being approved in order to audit case management, ensure consistency of approach and ensure that any vulnerability issues have been appropriately managed.

5 We will utilise the legal action as indicated in tenancy agreements in order to maximise income collection where customers have failed to adhere to repayment agreements and where all non-legal approaches have not resulted in consistent repayments. We will utilise external Debt Collection and Tracing Agents to trace and recover debts in appropriate circumstances and as a last resort we will follow company procedures for write off of irrecoverable debts in accordance with Company financial regulations. Please refer to separate policy and procedure around write offs. For deceased former debts, appropriately sensitive efforts will be made to recover amounts from the estate of the deceased. Payment deductions Where customers accounts owe a debt then we will seek to deduct amounts in lieu of payment entitlements i.e. disturbance allowances or home loss payments or other compensation payments. Liaison with other agencies / partners We will help to maximise customers income through carrying out benefit entitlement checks including Housing Benefit/Universal Credit assessments. If officers know that all of the appropriate information has been supplied to Benefits Agency, and a customer is paying in accordance with benefit calculation, then further action will not be taken. We will maintain regular contact with Benefit Agencies to ensure the quick calculation of benefits. If however, information is not supplied then we will take the next stage of recovery action. We will continue to develop a close relationship with the Local Authorities Benefit service where appropriate or other Benefit Agencies, ensuring quarterly monitoring of the Service Level Agreement and annual review where these have been established. We will liaise with Benefit Agencies to aid prompt benefit claims processing, minimise overpayments of benefit and tackle fraud. All customers will be encouraged to allow consent to pay benefit direct to the landlord and to allow the Company to liaise directly with the Benefits Agency on their behalf where this is available. Customers will be made aware at the start of their tenancy and with any new claim that they can have their benefit paid direct to them where customers receive Housing Benefit. Where customers have benefit paid direct to them, we will seek direct payments from the Housing Benefits sections where an

6 account goes into arrears. When Universal Credit is introduced and payments made direct to customers we will seek payments direct to the landlord where accounts go into arrears. We will liaise closely with Benefit Agencies where we are aware of benefit fraud for example, non-occupancy or sub-letting. This will ensure that customers only receive the benefit entitlement that they are due. We will promote welfare benefit and independent money advice to customers via our in-house Money Advice Service or make referrals for specialist support where appropriate i.e. West View Advice and Resource Centre, Stockton District Advice and Information Service. We will continue to liaise closely with the relevant Local Authority around any homes which we manage on their behalf. We aim to ensure sustainability of tenancies and will liaise with the relevant Local Authority where there are opportunities to establish formal protocols around repayment plans based on priority debts i.e. Council tax and rent where this has a positive outcome for our customers. Support In order to support customers who are affected by the Welfare reforms we have introduced a Landlord Discretionary Housing Fund (LDHP) which will provide financial support to our most vulnerable customers and those who will be most affected by the changes. This fund will be widely published with clear eligibility criteria and will be regularly monitored and reviewed to ensure that it is consistently and equitably applied. In addition, both landlords have a discretionary fund for current tenants to receive short term support towards their rent accounts where customers are struggling with their rent payments, which will help to reduce the impact of emergency situations i.e. recent redundancy situation or fire/flood. This fund will help to maintain rent repayment agreements and ensure sustainability of tenancies. We will try to prevent homelessness, wherever possible, by providing timely advice and intervention through homeless prevention protocols. If appropriate, we will access the Council s Homeless Prevention Fund. We will support schemes for younger customers and vulnerable customers that help develop skills necessary to manage household budgets and thereby sustain and protect their tenancy. We will ensure that special circumstances and vulnerability are recognised and assisted in income maximisation, advice and assistance.

7 Joint tenancies With regard to current and former rent arrears, joint tenants are both liable for payment of any debt. However, Vela will in cases of former arrears, consider the potential circumstances of the case and may agree to recover a proportion of the debt from either person. Incentives We will develop a range of incentives which support customers who switch to the most reliable and cost effective payment methods i.e. Standing order and direct debits. We will also utilise incentives in the recovery of former and recharge debts where customers offer either a substantial or full payment. The incentive for former and recharge debts will be appropriate to the amount owed and the likelihood of successful debt recovery. Credits Where credits are outstanding on current and former accounts we will take a pro-active approach to making customers aware including where a customer is deceased contacting their next of kin. Rehousing requests We will work within the Choice Based Lettings Policy with regard to outstanding debts for both current and former debts. Applicants not meeting the criteria outlined in the Ineligible and Overlooked Policy will not normally be re-housed. If Safeguarding Children or Domestic Violence has been identified and evidenced in the application, a flexible approach will be taken. Reference should be made to the Vela Under Occupation Policy with regard to customers who are under occupying as per the Welfare reforms and seeking rehousing where an account is in rent arrears. Debt Specific Policies This section sets out any additional specific principles which relate to the following debts. Leaseholders Shared Ownership and rent to home buyers Commercial rent i.e. shops Sundry Debts

8 Leaseholders Where leasehold service charges remain outstanding we will seek all remedies available to recover outstanding leasehold service charges. As a last resort we would consider a charge on the property. We will ensure that clear information is provided to customers prior to the leasehold purchase by inviting prospective leaseholders for individual discussion to ensure that leaseholders are aware of potential leasehold future charges. This will include publicising the Vela Debt Recovery policy. We will monitor accounts regularly and will promote to leaseholders the importance of letting us know if they are having any difficulties in meeting their obligations at the earliest opportunity. We will inform leaseholders that non-payment of service charges is unacceptable and that recovery action will be taken for non-payment of service charges, breach of lease obligations and payment arrangements. Within the 1 st five years only those service charges detailed on the legal offer notice (under Section 125 of the Housing Act 1996) will be levied in accordance with the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act Service charges will be raised within 18 months of the charge becoming due. We will issue service charge statements and demands within 6 months of the end of the year of the services provided: or provide written notice, by registered post, of any new timescale where required. In accordance with Section 20 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 will carry out consultation with all leaseholders prior to the commencement of major works. Works carried out under the Company partnering arrangements will be deemed to have undergone appropriate procurement procedure and leaseholders will be consulted on the content of works. We will continue to explore whether a sinking fund would be appropriate and will liaise with leaseholders prior to any introduction. Shared Ownership and rent to home buyers We will use legal approaches as defined within the Rent to Buy (Assured Shorthold) tenancies. Where we seek possession proceedings for shared ownership customers we will seek all non-legal remedies prior to explore legal remedies under the terms of the shared ownership lease. We would ensure effective liaison with the Mortgage Company

9 where appropriate and would consider the option to purchase some or the entire customers share as part of a mortgage rescue scheme. Leases in these properties allow the charging of interest on the outstanding shared ownership rent and we reserve the right to charge interest. Where shared owners have more than one debt then shared ownership rent will be prioritised. Commercial rent ie shops These properties are rented under lease and the tenancies are managed on a commercial basis. We aim to prevent arrears arising on shop tenant accounts and to reduce the level of any existing arrears. We will make it clear to all shop tenants that non-payment of rent is unacceptable and that recovery action will be taken if rent obligations are not met. We will actively promote that to prospective tenants that they have taken up business startup advice for new business or show a proven track record as an existing business. We will carry out stringent vetting of prospective tenants, including a credit check/bankruptcy check (subject to legal advice) and for existing customers, a check of their other accounts For former shop tenants who owe rent arrears inform of the monitoring of arrears and periodic review of existing arrangements to pay We will take court action to recover outstanding amounts where arrangements are unsatisfactory or are breached We will inform shop tenants that we are entitled to charge interest on late payment of accounts under The Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 under the term of lease. Persistent late payment or failure to comply with a re-payment plan may result in court action being taken and the costs recharged to the shop tenant. Sundry Debtors The Company provides a variety of services to tenants and other customers for which a charge is levied. These include Home Call services to private customers Service Level Agreements with the Council

10 Services for other Housing Associations Services to development and regeneration partnerships Court fees We will provide standard terms and conditions for payment of sundry debts and set these out on the invoices raised to customers We will raise invoices promptly following the supply of goods or services, making arrangements to pay, recording payments made and producing reminders to pay. We will only raise a sundry debtor account when other more immediate methods of recovery are impractical. We will set a minimum amount for raising an invoice below which will be viewed as uneconomic to pursue in terms of recovery action. We may choose to offset payments where business customers both receive and provide services for the Company subject to the relevant legal constraints. Our impacts This policy impacts on:- Customers Potential customers Leaseholders Employees Agencies Partners The stakeholders of this policy are: Tristar Homes and Housing Hartlepool Board of Directors The Vela Group Customers Employees Performance Outcomes The policy aims to achieve the following outcomes:- Maximise income collection across all debts. Increased customer satisfaction from customers accessing the Income Management service. Ensure customer awareness of services and support available. Increase in benefit take up

11 Control the number of evictions and legal remedies whilst increasing income collection. Consistency of recovery actions in accordance with the policy principles. We will monitor and strive to improve performance on debt recovery. We will work in partnership with other organisations to help assist customers with multiple debts and to prevent homelessness. We will follow the debt policy and associated procedures to ensure a consistent approach. Clear monitoring and performance targets will help drive forward service improvement and performance. Approach All new and existing officers will be provided with on-going training on the policy to ensure that there is a consistent approach to managing debt whilst complying with the Equality and Diversity policy. Using customer profile information we will ensure that service delivery and communication with customers is in line with their needs and requirements. The policy will be published on the Company s intranet and published on the Company s website. Approval To ensure that the policy meets our customers expectations, we will consult with customers on our income policy and procedures. The landlord Boards will approve any amendments to the Debt Policy. Policy Owner The owner of the policy is Kay Glew. Kay Glew Head of Housing Services. Tel This document is available in other formats and languages. For further information, please contact the Customer Service Centre on

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