Thousands of people’s lives could be made better.
Bristol City Council has taken a step that could make a difference to the lives of tens of thousands of people in the city, improve the collection of council tax to pay for public services, and reduce the ability for bailiffs to profiteer at the expense of Bristolians in debt.
This development follows a five-month Bristol Cable campaign and ongoing pressure from councillors and other sources calling on the council and Mayor Rees to change the way the council collects debt.
In an interview with the BBC that follows up the Cable’s campaign, Labour councillor Craig Cheney, the cabinet member for finance, will say that the council will run an ethical debt collection pilot “within the next few months”.
The full BBC piece will be aired on radio Bristol and BBC West TV today (Tuesday).
While the full details of the pilot are yet to be announced, Cheney said council staff recently visited the London council of Hammersmith and Fulham to find out more about their complete phase out of bailiffs to collect council tax.
As reported by the Cable, the London borough introduced a zero bailiff policy earlier this year after a successful pilot of ‘ethical debt collection’. The new approach saw a rise in the amount of council tax debt recovered and a reduction in problems on families and residents, such as distress, rent arrears and further debt.
Talking about his own childhood experience of bailiffs and on the ineffectiveness of using bailiffs to collect debt, Cheney said, “That’s the really exciting part, not only can we be ethical, but we can bring more money in.”
While the council has not yet committed to dropping the use of bailiffs altogether, Cheney says that “our intention is to reduce that use to the bare minimum”, as well as working to develop better prevention and support services for people who fall into debt.
The council currently outsources enforcement of council tax debts on average 1,000 times each month to private bailiffs, who charge millions in fees to indebted Bristolians every year.
Labour councillor Paul Goggin, who has been vigorously lobbying for change and the full phase out of bailiffs, told the Cable: “I welcome Cllr Cheney’s promise to pilot an ethical debt collection approach, and hope we will be able to start very soon.
“Looking for ways to protect the most vulnerable, whilst actually increasing our net collection amount in these times of Tory austerity, is exactly what we were elected to do as a progressive Labour administration,” he said.
Mayor Rees is in favour of reforming the way bailiffs are used, although no detail or commitments have been made until this point.
Last week a parliamentary committee released a damning report finding that councils were too quick to use bailiffs and were “uncompromising” with people in debt, with collection practices falling far behind most of the private sector. The MPs’ findings contributed to a growing body of evidence by leading charities that show how the use of bailiffs by councils is pushing people further into debt, causing severe distress and is also ineffective at recovering unpaid council tax.
The Cable will be continuing the campaign on this issue and holding the council to it’s commitments.
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