Fair Debt. Policy. Why Have A Fair Debt Policy?

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1 Fair Debt Policy A policy to assist customers who owe money to the council. Why Have A Fair Debt Policy? Wyre Borough Council is required to collect monies from both its residents (Council Tax) and businesses (Business Rates). In undertaking this collection function it is inevitable that the Council will be required to pursue the recovery of arrears from persons and businesses who may experience difficulty in paying such accounts. An agreed policy of how the council manages and collects debts is key therefore in ensuring consistency and best practice in such situations. The policy aims to provide the framework for a consistent and sensitive approach to collecting debt whilst at the same time ensuring that the council continues to maximise collection performance. This policy currently covers Council Tax and Business Rates debts but could be extended to cover Housing Benefit overpayments and other debts owed to the council. For those who can t pay We will advise clearly what happens if debts are not paid. We will ensure that customers are receiving all the help available to reduce their bills and if not assist them in the application process. With customer s agreement we will liaise with other agencies to provide support to those with serious debt problems. We will adopt a supportive approach to debt recovery with a pro-active referral process where possible. Priority Debts There are many types of debt but the council considers priority debts as those for which the consequences of non-payment are the most serious. The highest priority debts are those that could result in the loss of the customer s home or their imprisonment. Mortgage arrears can result in repossession of the property. Rent arrears can result in eviction. Other secured loans - can result in repossession of the property Council Tax arrears - can result in attachment of earnings/benefit, loss of possessions, bankruptcy or imprisonment. Other priority debts include: Business rates, fuel debts, water rates, maintenance or child support, Income Tax and VAT, benefit overpayments or fines. Non-Priority Debts Non-priority debts include credit/store cards, unsecured personal loans, bank overdrafts, hire purchase agreements, catalogue debts and money borrowed from family and friends. 1

2 Section 1 Section 2 Policy Objectives Ensure that all Council Tax and Business Rate payers interests are protected by striving to collect in full all debts owed to the council. Ensure the most efficient use of resources by identifying solutions for customers on debt issues at the first point of contact. Ensure that customers are fully aware of their responsibility to pay debts and the consequences of nonpayment. Be fair but firm and ensure consistency in dealing with customers. Be "preventative", for example, by being flexible in offering a range of payment options and advice that takes account of individual circumstances and the ability to pay. Encourage customer self help including the take up of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit, discounts and reliefs. Improve contact with customers. Contribute to improved financial literacy and inclusion. Maximise income for the council. Reduce the need for enforcement action and minimise recovery cost to the debtor. Apply best practice in relation to debt collection. Improve the customer experience and the council s relationship with its customers. Meeting the Objectives Provision of information and access to advice and support All written communications will use language appropriate to the intended recipient and plain English will be the standard wherever possible. Where using complex terminology is unavoidable or required by law it will be clearly explained. All documents will be issued in a timely manner, in accordance with statutory deadlines where appropriate and will explain clearly the legal options open to the council to collect debts, taking into account the stage of recovery achieved. The council will advise individuals/businesses about claiming Housing and Council Tax Benefit and the range of discounts, reliefs and reductions available at both the time an account is issued and in subsequent arrears recovery documents. All recovery documentation will explain why it has been issued, what action the customer must take and the consequences of non-payment including any additional costs that may be incurred. Where action involves attending court customers will be given information on the court procedure and what will happen at the court hearing. The council is has its own Debt Advisor who may be able to offer independent help and advice to customers with financial problems. If this is not possible or inappropriate customers will be advised where they may obtain advice. The council will ensure that wherever possible arrangements are in place to provide documentation in other languages to assist persons whose first language is not English and in other formats for those with impaired vision. 2

3 Section 3 Procedure for recovering Local Taxation Debt Be fair but firm and ensure consistency in dealing with customers The council will comply with legislation in all recovery matters. Reminders and/or final notices will be issued to all customers who default in payment. Information on the implications of failing to meet payment requests will be made clear at this and all recovery stages and customers will be encouraged to contact the council if they have payment problems. Failure to comply with a reminder or final notice will result in recovery action being taken in the Magistrates Court and liability orders being obtained. Where a liability order is held the council has additional powers available to enforce payment Attachment of earnings Deductions from certain benefits To use bailiffs Charging orders Bankruptcy or liquidation Committal to prison proceedings Customers will always be advised before any of the above powers are used and they will be told what additional costs they are likely to incur. All bailiffs appointed by the council will operate under an agreed code of practice. The council will always consider a voluntary solution with the customer rather than using any other the above statutory powers. What procedures are used All actions taken to secure payment of debts are in accordance with current legislation and council policy. Wherever possible the council will deal with customer debt enquiries at the first point of contact in Connectwyre, the council s contact centre. Where a specific officer is dealing with a case, direct contact details will be provided. Customers will be informed of the options available to manage their debt(s) and of the relevant service providers who may be able to offer assistance. The detailed procedures used for Local Taxation debt recovery are set out in section 3 of this policy. Arrangements for policy review The Fair Debt Policy and its effectiveness will be monitored and reviewed annually. This will ensure that it reflects relevant legislation and that the most effective methods are used. Assessment of the ability to pay In pursuing debt recovery the council will act in accordance with statutory regulations and advice issued by professional bodies and the council s external auditors. Experience shows that as a general rule, collection is maximised by pursuing debts on an individual basis in a timely manner. The council will always deal with customers in this way after the magistrates have issued a liability order. Where it is apparent that a customer is unable to pay an account as requested the aim would be to agree an arrangement to pay that takes into consideration the customer s specific circumstances. Ability to pay will be based on the customer s disposable income in proportion to the level of debt and any individual family/household circumstances. The minimum position as far as the Council is concerned, should be that an 3

4 individual s indebtedness to the Council does not worsen. Staff will always seek to make realistic arrangements to clear outstanding amounts by regular payments, in preference to escalating legal action for recovery. However, within the law, the council will always seek to obtain a liability order to allow further recovery action if required. A financial statement, listing the customers' household income and expenditure may be required to support a request for an arrangement. Documents to support the information contained in the financial statement may be requested before an arrangement can be agreed. In all cases where a liability order is held, the council will make a statutory request for information relating to the customer s employment and income with a view to using an attachment of earnings or deduction from Income Support or Job Seekers Allowance to collect arrears. How information may be shared The Council will ensure that all computer systems used to bill and recover monies, satisfy statutory requirements and have security to protect customer s personal data. Staff involved in the collection and recovery of accounts will be given appropriate training in the use of the various computer systems and the requirements of the Data Protection and Human Rights Acts as they apply to debt recovery. Subject to any statutory limitations information contained on different systems will be made available in order that an individual s full indebtedness can be established and properly dealt with. The council will require proper authorisation in order to share personal data with external organisations (e.g. Citizens Advice Bureau or debt management companies). How the council uses debt collection and other agencies On successfully taking court action against a debtor, the council is empowered to enforce payment through a number of statutory remedies, including the right to seize goods or to request imprisonment etc and will apply the most appropriate remedy. One remedy is levy of distress, which the council exercises through the use of external bailiffs. Three bailiff companies provide services to the council for execution of liability orders. The council ensures that all action taken is in line with an agreed code of conduct. The Council will ensure that these more 'severe' powers, for example removal of goods, will only be used when all other reasonable methods have failed and where all appropriate internal and statutory processes have been properly followed. How we will conduct personal visits to debtors. The council s officers or external bailiffs will undertake visits to persons / businesses in arrears in order to resolve outstanding accounts and make payment arrangements. Persons making such visits will be adequately trained, will provide the customer with their identification and will act in accordance with an agreed code of conduct. All bailiffs will have certification from the County Court. Council visiting officers will make every effort to provide customers with help and advice on claiming benefit, discount or other entitlements which may assist their financial position. Visits will be co-ordinated to provide the most efficient use of council resources 4

5 How we will deal with irrecoverable debts The Council recognises that not all debts are collectable and it will be appropriate in certain circumstances to classify debts as irrecoverable and to write them off where pre determined criteria are met. Debts will not normally be written off if the customer s whereabouts is known. On-line tracing facilities will be used in an attempt to locate absconding debtors before a debt is written off. All write-offs will be dealt with in accordance with the council s financial regulations and financial procedure rules. The council will make adequate provision in its accounts to cover the cost of bad debts. Account credits will be refunded promptly although where the customer owes other debts, the council will seek permission to offset any account credit to reduce their overall balance. 5

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