East Devon District Council

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Policy Corporate Debt policy

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4. How will we go about it

Our approach will be proportional, consistent and transparent.

Proportional

means that we will strike a balance between potential loss of income to the Council and the costs of recovery action.

Consistent

means taking a similar approach in similar circumstances in respect of the advice we give and the use we make of our recovery powers and procedures. It does not simply mean uniformity, since we will also take into account the social circumstances of the customer, their payment history and ability to pay.

Transparent

means helping customers to understand what is expected of them and what they should expect from the council.

With this approach in mind, we will apply the following as standard:

Billing

We will ensure that all bills/invoices clearly show:

  • what the bill is for
  • issue date
  • who is liable for the debt
  • the amount of the debt and the date it is due to be paid
  • council tax reduction, discounts, exemptions or other types of relief that are  available
  • a contact point for all enquiries

Correspondence

In our correspondence we will:

  • write in plain English avoiding the use of jargon
  • set out clearly both the terms of any agreement to pay and the potential consequences of not paying.
  • produce documents in different formats to help support customers so that they are not at a disadvantage when using our services - for example, sending a large print document for someone who is visually impaired

Payment and arrangements

We will:

  • encourage customers to pay promptly and regularly
  • provide a range of payment options (see appendix 5)
  • promote direct debit as this is a proven method for ensuring payments are made on time
  • agree to alternative payment arrangements when appropriate
  • when making an arrangement we will get as much detail as possible about a customer’s circumstances in order to make an accurate assessment of their ability to pay (this may require the customer to complete an income and expenditure form)
  • monitor arrangements and take action if they fall behind as maintaining regular repayments is an important part of effective debt collection

Contact and advice

We will provide and publicise all our contact methods and encourage early contact, these are:

  • telephone
  • email
  • in person at the Council’s main reception in Sidmouth
  • letter

Where appropriate we will:

  • check whether customers are entitled to any reduction
  • raise awareness to maximise housing and council tax support take-up
  • train staff who deal with debt matters to signpost customers on to other income-related benefits such as: Job Seekers’ Allowance, Working Families Tax Credit, Pension Credits and Disability Working Allowance
  • visit a customer in their own home therefore recognising the different needs of our customers
  • signpost customers about where they can get free independent financial advice, such as CAB, Homemaker, the National Debtline, the Community Legal Service Direct, Christians Against Poverty
  • With the agreement of the customer we will also refer rent and council tax arrears cases to appointed welfare agencies who can give much wider support. This is to not only deal with rent and/or council tax arrears but is also to help deal with any social issues, paper work, managing budgets
  • Signpost businesses to Business Improvement Point (BIP) where they can get free independent support and advice

Debt advice agencies

We will only refer to accredited specialist debt advice agencies.

Multiple debts

When we become aware that a customer has multiple debts to us and is having difficulty in paying them, consideration will be given to priority debts (see appendix 1).

Enforcement agents

Enforcement agencies we use will be appointed under a service level agreement or contract with us. This will specify the terms in which they will operate, including:

  • Enforcement agents to always act in a professional, responsible and courteous manner and operate in accordance with current legislation.
  • Maintaining accurate records of all action taken  and contacting us immediately where they identify a customer to be vulnerable. On these occasions they must contact the appropriate team leader/assistant team leader for further guidance on action to be taken. This must be recorded by both the enforcement agent and the council, on the customer’s file. Authority is required for the removal of goods from any of the following; Revenues & Benefits Manager, Head of Finance, Deputy Chief Executives or Chief Executive.
  • Equality Policy and Objective 2012-2016
  • Communications Plan 2012-2016Customer Commitments
  • Data Protection Policy and the Data Protection Act 1998
  • CIVEA Code of Conduct
  • National Standards of Enforcement Agent

Charging order, bankruptcy or committal to prison

We will only take this action after seeking approval from the Chief Executive or an Officer with delegated powers in accordance with the Council’s Constitution.

We will consider using Charging Orders before bankruptcy or committal to prison action providing there is sufficient equity in the property to secure the debt.

Where we have obtained a charging order we may apply to the County Court to force sale in order to recover a debt or for bringing an empty property back into use.

Before deciding whether any of this action is appropriate the following should be taken into account and documented as part of the submission for approval.

  • Reasonable efforts have been made to contact the debtor in person, including visiting them in their home, if appropriate.
  • Reviewing an accurate history of the debt and attempts made to recover it
  • Gathering sufficient evidence about the customers circumstances.
  • Assessing that there is no realistic prospect of recovering the debt by other means within a reasonable time scale.
  • Proper enquiries have taken place into the individual’s personal circumstances, for example; whether there are any  known mental health issues or vulnerable dependants.
  • Considering information about the past, present, disputed or outstanding benefit/council tax support or discount/exemption claims
  • Considering whether the customer’s personal circumstances warrant them being protected from the consequence of this recovery action
  • Considering the consequences in terms of the possible loss of their home, loss of job and the additional financial costs they will incur in addition to what is owed to the Council (forcing sale on a charging order or Bankruptcy).
  • Considering the consequences in terms of the possible loss of a person’s liberty if they are committed to prison and impact this will have (Committal to Prison).

We will always send a letter warning the customer of our proposed action at least 28 days before applying to the Court. The letter must include information:

  • Warning of the serious consequences of either a charging order, forcing sale on a charging order, bankruptcy, or committal to prison and their continued failure to pay the debt, and
  • Urging them to seek independent advice and include details of where they can get local free advice.

(This information must be retained in accordance with the Council’s Document Retention Policy)

Vulnerability

It is important that we (and those acting on our behalf) can recognise when someone is vulnerable and what additional measures we (and those acting on our behalf) may need to put in place to ensure than any person who is vulnerable is treated appropriately. This will also necessitate considering the appropriateness of any recovery action we take.

What does vulnerable mean?

We have not specified any particular groups of people who may be considered vulnerable, as we are aware that any of our customers may be vulnerable or become vulnerable, on a temporary or permanent basis, due to their personal circumstances. Moreover, we appreciate that people can respond in different ways to the same situation and there are often different trigger points and tolerances to an individual’s ability to cope in a situation. Additionally, their ability to cope can vary depending on the level of support the individual has. For example someone who;

  • has severe learning difficulties and is incapable of understanding or defending themselves notwithstanding that they may have an appointee, guardian, carer, support worker, is still likely to be considered as vulnerable.
  • is disabled but is capable of managing their own financial affairs is unlikely to be considered vulnerable.
  • has just suffered a bereavement may be temporarily vulnerable.

Accordingly we will listen to our customers and establish how best we can support them. Each customer will be assisted individually dependent upon their personal circumstances at the appropriate time. To achieve this our staff (including agents acting on our instruction) when dealing with potentially vulnerable customers in debt will consider:

  • Does the customer understand the action being taken?
  • What level of support is available or is required to enable the customer to understand?
  • How can this support be provided to ensure that the customer understands?

Ways we support customers who are vulnerable

To ensure that vulnerable customers understand that action is being taken it may be appropriate to consider alternative ways of dealing with the situation. Accordingly when dealing with a vulnerable customer:

  • We will consider the appropriateness of the recovery action. For example; for non payment of council tax we may do a deduction from benefit rather than referring a case to an Enforcement Agent.
  • We may put recovery action on hold, to allow the customer extra time
  • We will direct our customers to other sources of debt advice, such as Citizens Advice Bureau and Homemaker appointment or case working services
  • Where a vulnerable customer is identified, if necessary, we will visit the customer at their home to discuss their debt(s). 
  • We will work with advice agencies to agree repayment schedules that are affordable, and recognise a customer's priority debts. 
  • We will publicise debt advice contact details with our literature.  
  • Where a customer has multiple debts within the council we will develop a joint strategy for repayment of any debts. 
  • Where allowed in law we will share data regarding vulnerable customers with other interested parties. 
  • We will ensure that our staff are fully trained and have appropriate skills to identify vulnerability and signpost customers to local support agencies and networks.
  • We take a proactive approach to engaging with our customers to try and identify any issues and whether they have any support framework in place. We also encourage our customers to contact us.

It should be noted that the above list is not exhaustive and other ways to support our customer may be identified and pursued where appropriate.

Write-offs

Write-off is good practice when a debt is irrecoverable or inappropriate to recover.

Irrecoverable

These are debts where the Council has no discretion over writing off as they are enforced by legislation:

  • Insolvency (bankrupt, liquidation, debt relief orders, etc)
  • Remitted by the Courts
  • Time barred

Inappropriate

These are debts where designated officers will have approval to write off under the Council’s constitution:

  • the customer is vulnerable and it is inappropriate to pursue enforcement action the customer cannot be traced
  • it would not be cost effective to pursue because the debt is too small
  • when the likelihood of payment is balanced against the cost of proceeding
  • the customer has died and there are no, or insufficient, funds in the estate

Authorisation for write-offs is carried out in accordance with the Council’s constitution.

Credits

We will make reasonable efforts to refund customers where they are in credit unless the customer has another debt with the council. In these instances, we will transfer the credit to reduce the debt, subject to the agreement of the customer if the transfer is to a different section of the council.