The resumption of enforcement visits to collect overdue, pre-coronavirus debt to local authorities has been handled successfully, according to evidence from CIVEA, a trade association representing civil enforcement agencies in England and Wales.
The majority of visits in the month following the resumption of visits on 24 August have been to enforce fines, traffic offences and other penalties that have been outstanding since before lockdown measures led to a suspension of activity.
A report based on a survey of 21 enforcement firms and their field agents, which was originally devised for the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), has now been published and shows generally consistent and positive experiences across the industry regardless of company size or location.
The implementation of new post-COVID-19 guidance and processes was expected to generate challenges for enforcement agents (EAs) acting on behalf of councils. But the CIVEA report provides insight into agents' experiences and indicates that most feel protected and have found the public to be appreciative of the precautions put in place. This is backed up by low complaint levels, said CIVEA.
The findings from the report include:
CIVEA said very few cases of COVID-19 patients, isolating or shielding, are being reported which suggests that efforts to make prior contact and encourage people to seek support have succeeded. Where agents have encountered vulnerable people, additional support is being provided by dedicated welfare teams and referrals to council support services.
During the hiatus on bailiffs visiting properties, which began at the end of March and ran until the end of August, councils incurred £4.8bn of extra costs and income losses. Despite extra central government funding, local authorities have warned the budget shortfall in England and Wales could top £7.4bn. Not addressing this shortfall would unquestionably impact members of the community who need support from local authority services, at a time when they need it more than ever.
CIVEA members only visit debtors who have not engaged or communicated with their local authority despite being given opportunities to do so. Visits are only authorised when there is a genuine need and previous attempts to resolve debts by other forms of communication have failed.
A Freedom of Information (FOI) request recently discovered that 113 local authorities in England and Wales have already recommenced enforcement action for unpaid Council Tax since restriction were lifted on visits at the end of August. The same report went on to find that over £164.4m pounds has been successfully collected by Enforcement Agents on behalf of councils during the 2019-2020 financial year, with the average revenue collected per local authority equating to £1.053m pounds.
The number of local authorities recommencing enforcement visits is expected to increase in the coming weeks and months, as council offices are adapted for staff to return and councils are seeing the success of those who have already resumed activity.
Russell Hamblin-Boone, CIVEA chief executive officer, said: “Our report reflects positive and negative findings as it is an honest, first-hand insight into the challenges enforcement agents face currently. After five months without enforcement visits and additional pressure on their budgets, councils will be pleased to read that our agents are still able to recover outstanding debts safely and responsibly. Their job is not easy, especially under current restrictions, but this report clearly shows precautions are working well and that most people appreciate the protective measures we have implemented.
“Enforcement is not as effective without entering premises, especially where we are recovering court fines, but all agents are acting according to CIVEA guidelines. We are providing regular updates to the government.
“It is important for councils to be able to fund their frontline services and to address the deficits caused by the coronavirus pandemic, before the shortfalls get worse. The need to collect debts is important, but our members understand that sensitivity towards debtors and support for vulnerable people is equally important. By collecting from those who can afford to pay but won't, councils can ensure funding remains in place to keep supporting members of the community who need their help most."
The CIVEA report on post-lockdown visits is available here
Two-thirds of the public think that public services such as social care are put at risk when people who can pay their Council Tax do not, according to a new YouGov survey conducted on behalf of CIVEA.
Hundreds of millions goes unpaid every year and over 80% of the public think that this would continue or get worse if local councils didn’t use bailiffs to recover unpaid debts. Twice as many adults back the use of enforcement agents to recover Council Tax debts than oppose civil enforcement, said CIVEA.
CIVEA is the principal trade association representing civil enforcement agencies employing around 2000 certificated enforcement agents that operate in England and Wales. CIVEA represents 37 companies that make up over 90% of the entire enforcement industry.
The collection of debts incurred before the coronavirus lockdown could help fill the funding gaps in their budgets, said CIVEA. Between March and June, councils incurred £4.8bn of extra costs and income losses. Despite extra central Government funding, local authorities have warned the budget shortfall in England and Wales could top £7.4bn.
Since Monday 24 August, local authorities have again been able to use enforcement agents again to recoup outstanding debts when their own efforts to collect money owed have been exhausted. Enforcement agents returning to work will be collecting debts incurred before coronavirus which have been suspended for five months.
Enforcement agents will not enter homes to take control of goods after visits resume, save for exceptional circumstances and where deemed safe for agents and customers. This policy will be regularly reviewed in line with government and public health guidance. Where agents encounter vulnerable people, additional support will be provided by welfare teams and referral to council support services.
The YouGov survey found that 65% said non-payment puts services, like social care, at risk. Fears are particularly acute among over 65s, 75% of whom thought non-payment puts services at risk, and among Labour voters (69%).
More than half of those polled, 56%, said councils should use bailiffs to collect money from people who can pay but won’t. This was more than twice the numbers who said councils should not use bailiffs, at 28%.
Support for enforcement action is highest amongst Conservative voters, 67%, and is above 50% in every region outside London. Almost half of those surveyed, 42%, said that a failure to use bailiffs would lead to fewer people paying their council tax and 39% said non-payment rates would stay the same. Only 5% said it would lead to improved compliance.
The survey also found that widespread support among the public for enforcement action for non-payment of court-imposed fines, with 64% of people saying bailiffs should be used. Some 66% of those polled said they supported the current practice of recouping the costs of collecting the debt from the person who owed the outstanding debt.
There are also concerns authorities will face an increase in Council Tax evasion this year, and 71% of people believe some taxpayers will use the current health crisis to avoid paying their council tax, even though they can meet the payments. Only 10% of people polled did not think this would happen.
Russell Hamblin-Boone, CIVEA chief executive, said: “The overwhelming majority of people pay their council tax on time because they recognise non-payment is unfair and puts vital public services at risk. Councils face a deepening financial crisis because of increased costs and lost revenue during lockdown so it is important that civil enforcement work can resume to recover much needed funding for frontline services.
“Enforcement action is always a last resort by councils when other collection measures have failed and, even then, in half of all cases, an affordable payment plan is set up through e-mails or phone calls. CIVEA’s post-lockdown support plan will enable civil enforcement to resume safely, ensuring that public health advice is adhered to and the most vulnerable are protected.”
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