MORE than two million homes are feared to have fallen behind on their council tax bills as a direct result of the coronavirus outbreak.
This is the staggering warning from three of the UK’s largest debt charities.
Your council tax is considered a priority bill, as not paying it can result in court action or even imprisonment.
Local authorities also have the power to send bailiffs to your home – although bailiff visits have currently been banned due to the ongoing coronavirus epidemic.
However, Citizens Advice, Money Advice Trust and StepChange fear council tax enforcement measures will restart soon – there has been no official word from the government about when this will happen.
The three charities are now urging councils to do more to protect households who have fallen behind.
Currently, local authorities are not offering payment breaks for council tax bills.
Instead, households in England who get council tax support will see bills cut by £150 a year as part of a £500 million Hardship Fund from the government.
This help applies to households who receive Council Tax Support.
What is Council Tax Support?
You may be eligible for Council Tax Support (sometimes called a Council Tax Reduction) if you're on a low income or on certain benefits.
You don't need to be the property owner to apply for Council Tax Support, nor does it matter if you're working or unemployed.
The amount you could see your bill reduced by depends on your personal circumstances – but you could end up seeing council tax slashed by 100 per cent.
This will depend on:
- Where you live
- Your circumstances (eg income, number of children, benefits, residency status)
- Your household income – this includes savings, pensions and your partner’s income
- If your children live with you
- If other adults live with you
You may also be able to get your council tax bill backdated, but again, this depends on your personal circumstances and where you live.
As each council offers different support, you'll need to contact your local authority for more information.
The Council Tax Reduction scheme is not available for residents in Northern Ireland.
Households in Northern Ireland should check out this scheme instead.
Other discounts and exemptions
There are a number of discounts and exemptions that you may be entitled to, if you're struggling to pay your council tax.
For example, if you live on your own, or with someone who isn't classed as an adult, you'll qualify for 25 per cent off your total annual bill.
You’ll also usually get a 50 per cent discount if no-one living in your home, including you, counts as an adult.
Additionally, you won't have to pay at all if everyone in your household is a full-time student.
Who doesn't count as an adult?
- Children under 18
- Full-time students, most apprentices and trainees aged under 25
- Student nurses
- Foreign language assistants registered with the British Council
- People with a severe mental impairment, such as learning difficulties or autism
- Live-in carers who look after someone who isn’t their partner, spouse, or child under 18
Contact your local council to check what support you can claim.
Challenge your council tax
Another way to reduce your bills is to challenge your council tax band – but only if you think you're wrongly in a higher band.
It's worth noting that challenging your council tax is not a sure-fire way to reduce your bills.
You'll also need to do your research first as it could result in you, and your neighbours, paying more if you're bumped up to a higher council tax band.
The first step is to check what council tax band your neighbours are on, based on houses that are similar in size and value.
This information is available online and is free to check, so you don't need to ask your neighbours in person.
Use the Gov.uk website to do this for houses in England, or the Scottish Assessors Association for properties in Scotland.
If you find you're on a higher council tax band compared to your neighbours, you may be able to successful make a challenge.
But before you do, another crucial check is to see how much your property was worth in 1991, as this is when council tax was launched by the government.
MoneySavingExpert has a free calculator tool to help you do this.
If you want to go ahead with a challenge, you can contact the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) in England and Wales or the Scottish Assessors Association (SAA) in Scotland.
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Get free debt advice
As well as being a priority bill, missing one council tax payment could mean you become liable for your entire annual bill in one go.
This means it's really important to seek advice as soon as possible, if you know you're unable to pay your bill.
There are plenty of organisations where you can seek debt advice for free.
- National Debtline – 0808 808 4000
- Step Change – 0800 138 1111
- Citizens Advice – 0808 800 9060
Dame Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Coronavirus has caused huge financial uncertainty for local councils.
“But this pressure must not trigger a wave of aggressive debt collection against people who are themselves struggling to pay their bills.
“Aggressive collection drives vulnerable people further into debt and is inefficient.”
Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, said: “There can be no going back to ‘business as usual’ for council tax collection.
“With millions at risk of falling behind with their council tax bills, the government should move quickly to address the weaknesses in the way local authorities collect arrears from people in debt – to ensure that this is fair, proportionate and does not make bad financial situations worse.”
Phil Andrew, chief executive of StepChange Debt Charity, said: “Council tax is often one of the bills that households experiencing financial difficulty struggle to pay, yet enforcement of it is harsher and more punitive than most other forms of debt.
“Particularly this early in the council tax year, if people miss a payment and become liable to repay the full amount, this is a worry.”
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It comes as households are spending more than £65million a month on gas and electricity during the coronavirus lockdown.
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