People struggling to pay their bills and facing ‘unprecedented hardship’ – some so pressured they are considering taking their own life – may be given a reprieve by Harrow Council.
Over the past two years, council chiefs have been devising a plan to introduce a new ‘vulnerability criteria’, which will advise debt collectors working on behalf of the authority whether to alter their approach if they assess that someone genuinely cannot pay – as opposed to choosing not to pay.
The move comes after a report, produced by Harrow Council’s overview and scrutiny committee in 2012, warned that the potential impact of central government’s welfare reforms would have a detrimental impact on taxpayers in the borough and their capacity to pay council tax.
Pamela Fitzpatrick, director at Harrow Law Centre in Pinner Road, Harrow, a charity which provides specialist legal, social and welfare advice to those most in need, told the Observer: “The proposed policy is well intentioned. However, we are not convinced that the council is taking sufficient steps to protect the most vulnerable.
“The increased council tax for vulnerable people comes at the same time as significant cuts to welfare benefits, which are impacting in particular on people who have serious illness or disability.
“As a result we are witnessing unprecedented hardship in Harrow.
“Sadly, we regularly see clients who are forced to make the harsh choice between paying essential bills, such as their council tax, or eating.
“A number of our clients have told us that their health has deteriorated and some have even reported feeling suicidal.”
Harrow Council’s cabinet committee is due to meet to vote on whether or not to implement recommendations made by the overview and scrutiny committee, including advising debt recovery services to developing processes for the identification of vulnerable households and reviewing actions accordingly.
Other recommendations are to improve how the council points people in the direction of sources of advice, such as debt management, and to implement some form of check in the debt recovery process before bankruptcy proceedings are instigated.
The report outlining the proposals states: “In this way we would hope that the devastating impact of bankruptcy is only applied to those of our residents who won’t pay rather than to those who can’t pay.
“Whilst we have no issue with the processes being applied to those of our residents who are refusing to pay, we hope that the mitigations we proposed in our review can safeguard the more vulnerable of our residents who are unable to pay these new bills.”
The vulnerability criteria would not reduce or absolve people from their council tax liability and the council will still operate a separate emergency relief scheme to give successful applicants ‘in kind’ support by supplying food vouchers, furniture, white goods, clothing, fuel top-ups and travel assistance, from which 437 people benefited between April and October.
Tony Ferrari, Conservative cabinet member for finance at Harrow Council, said: "This policy looks very carefully at vulnerable people in Harrow, and recognises that some of them experience difficulties when they owe a financial debt to the council. These criteria will allow us to look at each case individually and consider various options to assist vulnerable residents, depending on their specific circumstances.
"This does not mean debt will simply be excused, but rather allows us the flexibility to be fair and supportive to vulnerable residents when recouping their debt."