Move to jail council tax debtors compared to Dickens novel

Richmondshire District Council offices at Mercury House. Photo: Google.

Richmondshire District Council has been told its proposal to jail people for not paying council tax “is a little Dickensian” as its leading members agreed the authority should become the last in North Yorkshire to enact the power.

The authority’s corporate board will recommend to a full meeting of the authority on October 9 that it should confer on itself a power dating back to the scrapping of the poll tax in 1993 to imprison people for up to three months for deliberately avoiding paying council tax.

The meeting heard there was “less than a handful of people” who had decided not to pay their fair share towards council services and with whom the council had been through all the available methods of collecting their debts.

An officer said the authority always differentiated between “the can’t-payers and the won’t-payers” and the purpose of the move was to “add another tool to our armour to get people to pay”.

She said: “Some people are just not talking to us at all

“You get to the point where there are no other options. It’s a very last resort that we would never intend to try and use.”

Several councillors backed the move, saying the council had drawn up a comprehensive list of types of vulnerable people who would be excluded from the sanction.

However, Councillor William Heslop said as the council had managed for many years without the power, he was suspicious about whether the move was about the council aligning itself with others before a unitary authority was formed.

He added: “If you’re going to have a deterrent you’re going to have to use it, otherwise there’s no point in having it.”

Councillor Leslie Rowe said the move would be self-defeating and a poor reflection on the authority.

He said: “Little Dorrit is a book by Charles Dickens set in a debtors’ prison and it does appear to me that there is something a little Dickensian about a proposal to jail council taxpayers. Dickens also notes that one of the problems with a debtors’ prison is that it denies debtors the opportunity to earn a living and pay off the debt.

“It seems to me this is a sledgehammer not necessarily to crack a nut, but to be used as a threat against all of Richmondshire’s residents. A threat of punishing a resident because the council itself has failed to do its job of collecting council tax.”

Despite having spoken for just 61 seconds about the proposal, Councillor Rowe was then asked to “just move on” by the authority’s leader Councillor Angie Dale.

Coun Rowe said the council had a variety of means by which it could recoup council tax debts, such as taking them directly from wages or benefits, without resorting to collecting money “with menaces”. He said: “Clearly the impact of this particular sledgehammer is much more likely to affect the less well off in society.”

The authority’s deputy leader Councillor Helen Grant anyone who approached the council for help over council tax was treated “with kid gloves and respectfully”.

She added Coun Rowe’s “lecture about Dickens was out of order”.

She said: “Those people who find themselves in difficulty should never fear the outcome of this particular resolution.”