By Liane Groves, Unite Community National Coordinator
It may seem like an age away, but the image of thousands of people at courts being hauled before the magistrate, during Margaret Thatcher’s disastrous experiment in council financing with the imposition of the poll tax, is seared on our collective brain.
Two decades later councils are increasingly instructing bailiffs as a first step in reclaiming debt. The government in pursuit of their ideological determination to shrink the state, the low paid and the unemployed have become targets of austerity Britain. They didn't cause the calamity that hit our economy in 2008 but they are certainly paying the price for this economic failure.
Pensioners and people on the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) have been exempted but unemployed people are taking the hit. And what a hit it is as it comes on top of all the other cuts, including the hated bedroom tax.
It’s a change that is new and one that people are not used to paying. If people can’t pay their council tax they’ve got two months of non-payment after which a council can ask a magistrate’s court to recoup money. If they don't turn up to court the bailiffs can be sent to their home.
Yet again vulnerable people are under attack by this government. It’s a government that is rapidly becoming one of the most right wing administrations that we’ve had – arguably even more so than Margaret Thatcher’s.
We are well used to hearing people on low incomes say that the choice this winter is between heating and eating. Well add to that the many who are going without food to find the money that they owe their local authority. Councils need to look at how they deal with people in debt without going straight to instructing bailiffs to take action.
Unite Community Membership is campaigning under the banner ‘Arm Yourselves Against Debt’ - ‘No Evictions, No Bailiffs. We are urging anyone affected to get advice, know their rights and come together to fight debt.
So if someone owes money, one of the ways creditors might try to get their money back is by using bailiffs. The role of the bailiff is to take away household goods and sell them to raise money to pay creditors. The most important thing is don’t open the door to a bailiff.
For advice on how to deal with bailiffs look at our advice link here on www.unitetheunion.org/community
We are organising for campaigners to come together to fight debt. Unite Britain’s, biggest union is encouraging people to join (even if you are not in work), an organisation that puts people first.
And our message to councillors is simple - do not automatically turn to bailiffs.
Unite’s national industrial and sector conference will on 14 November debate the approach taken by councils and the rush to instruct bailiffs to recoup debt.
In the summer the Money Advice Trust found that in England and Wales local authorities referred debts to bailiffs on 1.8 million occasions - over 5,000 a day - in the last 12 months. Council tax arrears were one of the most common reasons.
Households are losing an average of between £132 and £140 a year. With costs rising losing this amount of money is a serious blow to those already on low-incomes. They’ve already been hit hard by other regressive changes and cuts to the tax and benefit system.
And there is a huge variation in the use of bailiffs between local authorities, for example Newham called in the bailiffs for the equivalent of 50 per cent of properties covered by the authority while in Bolsover the figure is just 2 per cent. The use of bailiffs deepens debt problems. They do not solve debt problems.
This links outlines the best practice protocol that all local authorities should be using; http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/index/campaigns/current_campaigns/council-tax-arrears.htm
For more information on the use of bailiffs and local authorities try this link: http://www.moneyadvicetrust.org/media/news/Pages/Local-Authorities-and-Bailiffs0821-6215.aspx
Finally if you are a Unite member join our local government network use this link to find out how: