Friday, January 14, 2005

Hitting the softest targets hardest

Back to local politics again for another dispatch from the Birmingham frontlines.

Unreported by the local media, many City Council employees are distressed by the turn that their Tory/Liberal Democrat political masters are directing when it comes to rent and council tax arrears.

One of the first acts was to issue instructions that council house rents were no longer to be collected in arrears, but two weeks in advance. Now, if you are deeply in debt or you receive housing benefit, this is of no interest, as benefit claims will be paid and those in debt are just a little more in debt. If, however, you are a hard-working tenant or a pensioner who has never been in debt in your life, this may come as a shock. The shock was worsened as the 'arrears' that you suddenly find you owe to your landlord are sufficient to trigger an automatic letter from the council threatening to seek a court order to take possession of your home.

It doesn't stop there, though.

As benefit claims can take a while to process, you may find yourself deeper in arrears - six to eight weeks isn't uncommon. The council used to agree to repayment terms - perhaps a couple of pounds a week over your normal rent to repay the debt. Not any more they don't. The new 'get tough' administration will have you in court seeking a possession order before your tears are dry on the letter.

If you can't pay your council tax, the council will take you to court and send in the bailiffs. They used to operate a policy of agreeing repayment terms. The hard men in charge of the council now direct the bailiffs to go straight to the 'Walking Possession' stage, where they identify goods to seize if you fail to keep up the payment plan (and pay their daily fee) and can then return and force entry to take the items if you don't pay up on time.

If you are on income support, receiving as little as £54 a week, the instruction is to ensure that you repay at least £10 a week. So from the remaining £44, you have to feed, clothe and ensure that you have electricity, gas and water. Take a look at your bills and ask yourself if it would be fair to ask you to pay up a fifth of your gross income.

Now, I'm not trying to defend those who won't pay. There is help out there for them and if people won't take debt advice, then they have only themselves to blame. Of course, these are tough targets to hit and require a lot of work to extract the money. By the way, on a budget close to £3 billion, the total arrears is under £50 million. In government terms, chicken-feed.

These new policies are hitting hardest at the softest targets - those who have fallen temporarily on hard times. Imagine that you've just lost your job and now your landlord is threatening to evict you or send in the bailiffs, even though the benefit system will kick in eventually.

Rather than using existing systems to help people back onto their feet and to stay in their homes, this council is making people homeless and driving them deeper into debt. No helping hand here, but a polished boot kicking them out of their front door.

1 comment:

john said...

The requirement for rent in advance was because of the new computer system contracted by Labour.

Only a small number of people were chased who didn't owe the money.