Those who fail to pay their council tax can currently be imprisoned for up to three months if a court thinks their non-payment constitutes wilful refusal or culpable neglect. However, The Civil Enforcement Association (CIVEA) has called for council tax dodgers to do community service instead – a move I think would be good for debtors, local authorities and Enforcement Agents alike.
Welsh initiative, national importance
CIVEA’s calls were delivered in response to the Welsh Government’s consultation on the potential removal of imprisonment as a penalty for non-payment of council tax. In it, Welsh Government Financial Secretary Mark Drakeford AM argues that “getting into debt is not a crime; the sanction of imprisonment is an outdated and disproportionate response to a civil debt issue.”
I agree with the sentiment here, and believe this issue has equal importance in England. Particularly as imprisonment involves an extra cost to the public purse, and thus effectively increases the cost of non-payment to those who pay their taxes diligently.
However, as CIVEA rightly says in its response, we cannot remove imprisonment as a punishment for council tax dodgers without replacing it with a fair and proportionate sanction to discourage wilful non-payment.
Enforcement industry data estimates that there were 341 arrest warrants issued by local authorities in Wales alone during 2016/17. Together these people owed £586,774. The revenue loss to local authorities could far exceed this if there were no sanctions at all in place. So it’s vital that the Welsh Government considers alternatives that are not just fairer to debtors, but cost-effective for the law-abiding tax payers who are, after all, the ones who foot the bill for non-payers.
With this in mind, I can see a number of benefits to introducing community service in place of imprisonment. Firstly, it ensures that there is a deterrent to non-payment. Secondly, it’s a disincentive that’s less costly to local authorities than imprisonment. Thirdly, it seems fair that those who do to contribute to society financially are made to do so in other ways.
I also believe it fits the Welsh Government’s stated goal to “to adopt more proactive and citizen-focused approaches to help prevent council tax debt occurring and escalating.” What could be more citizen-focussed than working in the community, completing vital tasks for the council?
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