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Are UK councils looking at a shared future?

Figures from the Local Government Association (LGA) recently revealed that councils are trying to save money by sharing services. With pressure on public funds showing no signs of easing, could sharing be the new normal for local authorities?

The facts

Data obtained by software firm Citrix indicates that sharing is on the up. Of 314 UK councils that responded to the outfit's freedom of information request, 89 per cent already pool services like IT and Customer Relationship Management systems.

The LGA’s findings, meanwhile, reveal that councils across the country have saved £462 million via shared service initiatives in the last three years. More than £100 million was saved in 2014 alone.

What's driving this change?

Central government funding for councils is due a 40 per cent reduction, forcing local authorities to make savings wherever possible. According to Citrix, austerity has forced many councils to review their processes and take a new stance on innovation.

All signs point to resource pooling becoming more commonplace – North East England alone saw 38 new sharing arrangements implemented in the 12 months leading up to May 2015.

Jason Tooley, UK and Ireland country manager at Citrix, told TechWeekEurope UK that councils most "innovate to deliver vital services” in the context of further cuts. Mr Tooley also stated that an “an increasingly complex landscape of shared services" is on the horizon.

Is sharing a cure-all?

While increased focus on innovation is undoubtedly positive, some commentators are concerned that joined-up services may represent a privacy risk for ordinary citizens.

Secondly, although councils are actively exploring new ways to pool resources, it's already clear that this won't always be possible or desirable. Some authorities may be concerned about losing their organisational identity, for example, while others may worry about trust issues. Ultimately, there will always be a limit to how much local authorities can share without drastically compromising on service delivery.

Fortunately however, sharing is not the only weapon in local authorities' arsenal. Councils can also ease pressure on their budgets by enlisting the help of Dukes Bailiffs. Our Enforcement Agents are trained to cover outstanding debts ethically, efficiently and sensitively.

If you work for a council and are worried that resource sharing is diluting your services, speak to our Contact Centre Manager today and find out how we could help.

Councils' use of Enforcement Agents to be debated by MPs

While we at Dukes Bailiffs specialise in ethical debt recovery, not all firms hold themselves to such high standards. Other companies' malpractice has tarnished the industry, and gave impetus to reforms that placed restrictions on Enforcement Agents' behaviour in 2014. Now Yvonne Fovargue, Labour MP for Makerfield, is proposing a bill that would further limit Enforcement Agents' conduct. Will the proposed changes have a positive effect?

What's on the cards?

If supported, Mrs. Fovargue's 'Regulation of Enforcement Agents (Collection of Council Tax Arrears) Bill' will lead to the establishment of an ombudsman position and turn existing 'good practice' guidelines on use of Enforcement Agents into legal requirements. At a time when uncollected council debts stand at at over £2bn, it's important that attempts to deal with rogue firms don't turn councils against ethical companies too.

If debt recovery outfits are acting responsibly and in line with 2014's interpretation of the 2007 'Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act', there should be no reason to fear the introduction of an ombudsman. What is concerning, however, is that Mrs. Forvargue is encouraging councils to avoid Enforcement Agents entirely. While we at Dukes Bailiffs support any changes that purge the industry of crude scare tactics, the suggestion that local authorities should look to establish "affordable repayment plans" instead of using Enforcement Agents utterly misrepresents our services.

A history of best practice

Our team of Debt Advisors and Enforcement Agents already use their expertise to produce affordable payment plans in conjunction with debtors and councils. We broke new ground by setting up a site dedicated to giving debtors money advice, and consistently go the extra mile to protect vulnerable individuals who've fallen into debt. This approach allows us to safeguard local authorities' reputations by making sure honest individuals aren't lumped in with deliberate non-payers.

We have a proven record of helping councils to maximise debt recovery, and pride ourselves on our transparent and competitive fee structure. New legislation should not deprive local authorities of ethical ways to boost dwindling budgets during austerity, and a distinction should be made between model Enforcement Agents and those who are lagging behind.

If you work for a local authority that's struggling to get by on austerity budgets, contact a Dukes Debt Advisor to find out how our services could help you today.

Bailiff complaints at Dukes remain “extremely low”

Dukes have few bailiff complaints Bailiff complaints have been the norm for some years now as poor practices are exposed by more savvy customers. But Staffordshire based enforcement company Dukes Bailiffs is bucking the trend. Final figures for 2014 compiled by auditors for the debt recovery firm shows Dukes' levels of complaints remain exceptionally low. During 2014 Dukes received just 10 customer complaints despite handling almost 29,000 cases.

“The figures are reassuring,” said Dukes MD Colin Naylor, “But there is no room for complacency. Our goal is to keep learning from any grievances we receive in order to further reduce complaint levels. We fully understand our responsibilities and appreciate that both our reputation and that of the creditor is at stake.”

Independent investigation

Any complaints received go through a robust investigative process by an independent consultant. Dukes’ MD is informed of all bailiff complaints and progress towards a resolution is reviewed at weekly management meetings. The outcome of the investigation, and any appropriate remedy, is notified to the complainant at the earliest opportunity. No generic timescales are set as the nature of complaints can vary, but Dukes agree timescales with individual complainants and clients are then informed at every stage of the process.

Learning lessons from bailiff complaints

“Our Complaints Procedure has been developed over 23 years to ensure all genuine grievances are resolved promptly,” said Colin. “Although we have a hugely experienced team, we can still learn lessons. Handling bailiff complaints can be time consuming, but implementing corrective actions to improve any weaknesses ensures investigations are worthwhile.”

Where complainants are not satisfied with the outcome or the proposed resolution, Dukes actively encourage them to raise their concerns with the Civil Enforcement Association (CIVEA). Dukes always abide by the findings of CIVEA.

Dukes overall complaint level has fallen to 0.0003% of the total number of cases actioned. As the table below from the CIVEA demonstrates, the number of complaints received by Dukes is lower than those received by all but one of its competitors. Dukes’ data is in red, competitor data in blue.

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