BAILIFFS are being sent in to recover more than £2 million in unpaid council tax.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council is making a ‘determined effort’ to collect some of the £14 million of debt owed by residents – some of which dates back 20 years.
Last year the authority used its own staff to reduce the debt mountain by £5 million.
But now a private debt collection company has been asked to collect a further £2.1 million.
The contract has been awarded to the unnamed company on a ‘no collection, no fee’ basis, but the agency will keep a percentage of any debt it manages to collect.
But cash-strapped families say they are now living in fear of bailiffs knocking on their door.
The contract with the bailiffs comes as council staff write off £2.5 million of unpaid business rates, and £6 million of unpaid council tax. These debts have become classified as ‘irrecoverable’, due to the debtor dying, absconding, becoming bankrupt or other reasons.
Councillor Paul Shotton, cabinet member for commissioning, procurement and finance, said: “We have taken a targeted approach to tackling the issue of unpaid council tax and business rates as well as historic debt recovery.
“This funding is a vital part of the city’s budget and we want to make sure that every penny goes towards providing vital frontline services.”
The council expects collection rates will be affected by the introduction of the new council tax support system, which means some people will have to pay for the first time, as well as other welfare reforms including the bedroom tax.
Council staff have adopted a number of new strategies to tackle historical debt, including hand-delivering letters, telephoning debtors out-of-hours and specifically targeting the top 50 debtors. Gill Brown, chief executive of Hanley-based charity Brighter Futures, said: “If people can pay but won’t, then it’s right they should be made to pay. But the problem with debt collection agencies is the council needs to be certain the methods being adopted are right, and people know what their rights are.
“By handing the debt to a private company, the council loses control of the service provided.”
Mum-of-two Jacqui Kettle’s family will be affected by both the bedroom tax and the abolition of council tax benefit introduced on Monday. The 30-year-old, from Bentilee, said: “If we fall into debt, it’s very scary to think that a bailiff could turn up at our doorstep, as we’re really struggling.”