The cost of living crisis continues to bite: everywhere, it seems, people are struggling to make ends meet, and every news bulletin seems to bring bad news of more financial instability and hardship. Interest rates are rising, affecting the cost of mortgages and consequently the rents demanded by landlords – if indeed they can afford to keep hold of their properties rather than selling up; a situation which could ultimately lead to homelessness for many tenants. Then there is the rising price of goods and services due to the cost of fuel, and the cap on household energy bills due to increase in April, with uncertainty about how long the government subsidy will continue. Even financial journalist, Martin Lewis, founder of the Money Saving Expert website, held his hands up recently to say that he was all out of ideas!
Throughout 2022, Citizens Advice has advised clients on a wide range of issues and debt continues to be one of the most prevalent concerns across the whole of Surrey. One of the most common issues, and one on which nearly 2000 people across the county consulted Citizens Advice last year, is the problem of council tax arrears. Many of these people – like Jean* – don’t realise the consequences of having this type of debt.
Jean initially called Adviceline because she had received a threatening letter from a collections agency regarding an old catalogue debt. Our advisers made her an appointment at her local Citizens Advice for a face-to-face appointment and a full debt assessment. It was during this assessment that her adviser discovered Jean’s direct debit to her local council for council tax had failed several times in a row and that she now had significant council tax arrears. Furthermore, her local authority was now demanding the whole year’s council tax ahead of taking the matter to court.
Jean didn’t understand the difference between priority and non-priority debt. She was worried about bailiffs visiting her home over a catalogue credit debt, but she didn’t know that a council tax debt has more serious consequences – her local authority could apply for a liability order to reclaim the council tax directly from her Universal Credit payment, and ultimately, if she didn’t have a good reason not to pay, she could face up to 3 months in jail.
Jean’s adviser explained that the first thing to do would be to contact the local authority to explain her situation. Our adviser helped her to apply for Council Tax Support as her low income suggested she would be eligible, and it was arranged with her local authority that she would pay over 12 months instead of 10, as she would find this more manageable.
‘I had no idea this was so serious’, says Jean, ‘it’s silly, I know, but I simply didn’t have enough to go around and you tend to focus on whoever is putting on the most pressure. Thank goodness, Citizens Advice were there to help me focus on the most important.’
If the cost of living crisis is pushing you into debt and you feel you need help, then drop into your local Citizens Advice or call our Adviceline (details below). We can’t wave a magic wand, but we can certainly help you prioritise and make a plan.
*Name has been changed for confidentiality.
CITIZENS ADVICE WAVERLEY CONTACT DETAILS:
By email: (the easiest way to contact a specific office) use enquiry form at https://waverleycab.org.uk/get-advice/e-mail-form/
By phone 0808 278 7980 (free) to speak to an adviser
Office opening: https://waverleycab.org.uk/get-advice/visit-us. Please check the latest opening hours before visiting as these can change at short notice.
South West Surrey Domestic Abuse Outreach Service: 01483 898884