When the Tories took control of the council, aided by their loyal Liberal Democrat poodles, they set about reducing the £13 million of council tenant rent arrears - a laudable aim. They started taking it out on the easiest targets and then brought payments forward to bring extra cash into the account. Then they sent threatening letters to all those in arrears, which mistakenly went out to many thousands of innocent tenants, as detailed in an earlier post of mine.
In the good old days, the council would rightly concentrate their fire on those tenants who refused to pay, but in the brave new world of the coalition, those who can't pay the whole amount now come in for the same forceful treatment. Back when Labour were in charge, if you agreed to make payments to reduce your debt - perhaps no more than a couple of pounds a week - and kept up to date, you were supported. That's the socially responsible way for a public-sector landlord to behave - indeed it is the way most lenders behave over debts.
However, as the council is now under new management, the totemic value of reducing that outstanding debt is approaching a fetish and there's a new twist to the way the books are cooked. You might think that a tenant who offers to pay a small amount to reduce their debt week by week should be applauded - after all, the council will get their money. You would, of course, be wrong. If you do it that way, the remaining sum of the debt remains on the arrears account. An evicted tenant won't pay anything to reduce the debt, but the total arrears get shuffled off to a different accounting point, thus reducing the £13 million headline total.
So, the officers are now instructed to pursue eviction in all cases where the tenant cannot make full settlement immediately, leading to large piles of cases being sent to the county court for judgement. Unfortunately, the judges are wise and compassionate human beings, so if the tenant offers to make a down payment on the spot and agrees to regular payments thereafter, the order to evict is denied. But still the cases come - in the sure knowledge that many will be thrown out and wasting the court's time and the taxpayers' money.
By the way, if you are evicted, you are regarded as intentionally homeless, so the council doesn't have to rehouse you. Nice, eh?
The council is also pursuing those who haven't paid council tax. Previously, if you were on benefit, the council would effectively amalgamate tax owed from previous years and take the maximum they could against a single debt - around £20 a month. Now, the council regards each debt as a separate entity, so pursue you for the maximum amount for each debt. This can quite easily mean that you end up paying £100 a month out of your £200 a month benefit, which is only going to drive you deeper into debt.
If you can't pay that, then the council will seek to have you locked up. This hasn't been used for many years, so some magistrates and court clerks didn't even know that they had the power to commit non-payers to prison, but the council are pushing it. So there you are - no threat to society, but being imprisoned for a debt. Victorian values in action, Charles Dickens would be proud.
You can understand how it happens - someone can lose a job or go through a divorce and the debt starts to mount. Suddenly, there are two blokes at the door and you have to choose to pay them or the council demand that has appeared on your doormat. Baseball bats are always more persuasive than red ink, so the council loses out. Rather than offering a helping hand, assistance with benefits and an agreed repayment scheme, the iron fist is cracking down on them.