Earlier this year our Research & Campaigns volunteers identified council tax as a priority campaign.
This is because council tax arrears is the most common debt issue we see — as the Debt Supervisor for Citizens Advice Wokingham I’m all too familiar with the reality of the situation.
People with council tax arrears often have other debts and will only contact us once the bailiffs are at the door.
Once the priority campaign had been identified, our CEO, Jake Morrison, met with the leader of Wokingham Borough Council to raise the issue. This began a number of meetings with senior officers at the council to look at what we could do.
Since April this year, as well as working as Debt Supervisor, I lead our council tax arrears project. It is a small pilot project at the moment, funded by additional funds from the council.
We hold monthly drop-in events jointly with officers from the council’s council tax team. This means that people in Wokingham can receive our free, independent and impartial advice — whilst also instantly knowing that bailiff/collection action will be put on hold while they receive our help.
Together, we set out to agree an action plan, that the resident (along with ourselves) and the council agree on. This may be a repayment plan, once we have assessed income and expenditure, or it could be us supporting them with a debt relief order or bankruptcy, if appropriate.
We recently helped a client with high levels of both debts of council tax and credit cards and debts to the bank. The client had been trying to deal with the debts themselves for several years, after the breakdown of the relationship with their partner. The interest and charges of some of the debts had continued to accrue and the client was unable to pay the minimum payment on their credit cards. The bailiffs had been involved with recovery of the council tax debts. The client advised us that they were feeling stressed and anxious and had been struggling to open their post due to feeling overwhelmed by their situation. They were taking medication for depression and reported that they felt unable to leave their home, due to the pressure of their debts.
We were able to explain their position to our contact at the Council Tax Collections Department at Wokingham Borough Council and they agreed to our request for a temporary hold on collection activity whilst we gave our client detailed advice. We helped our client with opening their post so we could see the whole picture, performed a benefit check, and helped our client to send holding letters to their other creditors, asking for a month to finalise a financial statement. We were then able to explain to our client what their priority payments should be and negotiated with the creditors on our client’s behalf. We suggested small appropriate payments for the client’s creditors based on their financial statement and having received acceptance from the creditors, the client was able to commence the repayments. With the new payment arrangement in place, the interest, charges and bailiff visits became a thing of the past.
The client reported that their health had improved significantly since working with Citizens Advice, and that they had even felt able to start looking for a full-time job. They had been wanting to do this for a long time, but did not have the confidence to do so before, due to the pressure of the debts. The client advised that they were able to look forward to a debt-free future for the first time in several years.
We will continue to look at how we can work with our communities and the borough council to reduce the amount of people in arrears with their council tax.
We want people to know that we are here to help — if they are unsure how much money they owe, whether they are on the right benefits or have an issue with a payment — contact us as soon as possible and we will assess your situation.
My other duties at the office include supporting volunteer advisers with their clients. Today, one of the advisers asks me to pop in to the interview they are conducting with a client, to have a chat to the client, as they may be a good candidate for Debt Relief Order. The client is unsure of the process and they are very concerned that the application may involve freezing their bank account, and that they will have to face the Official Receiver (OR). I am able to reassure the client that as Debt Relief Order Intermediary, subject to the usual checks we have a duty to perform, I will be able to submit their application electronically. There will be no court hearing, nor a visit to the OR. The client says that they are relieved to hear that the process is straightforward and that they can deal with us to achieve this. I answer the client’s concerns concerning their banking and make some suggestions. I provide them with more detailed information about the Debt Relief Order process to take away to read at home, before their next appointment with us.
I then turn to help an experienced adviser who is interested in becoming more specialised in debt casework. They have several questions concerning a case they are dealing with and substantial repayments of a debt which are being deducted from client’s Universal Credit. We do a little research together using Advisernet, and reference books, and I suggest a couple of options as a possible way forward. We agree that our client may benefit from a Foodbank voucher, and we complete the paperwork for this.
I also look through my emails, and note that confirmation has been received from a charity that they will pay a client’s bankruptcy fee. This is great news for the client, who has not been able to afford the £680 fee to apply for personal bankruptcy. I telephone them to let them know and to arrange for the correct paperwork to be completed in order to submit this as soon as possible.
I also have several adviser write-ups to check -I give feedback, make suggestions and ensure that any follow up tasks have been done. This could mean writing or emailing a client, or contacting their support worker, if the client has given us permission to do so. I also complete a quality assessment on a case, which we are required to do every month, which involves a detailed check on the quality of the advice we are giving.
Throughout my day, there have been lots of telephone calls from clients, questions from advisers, research to be done, completion of online applications forms, financial statements to be signed off and numerous cups of tea and biscuits. It is a varied role, and a very rewarding one. It is a privilege to be a part of a client’s journey towards a debt- free future.
To find out more information about Citizens Advice Wokingham and opportunities to support us, visit www.citizensadvicewokingham.org.uk