Richmondshire council leaders warned against creating ‘council tax martyrs’

Richmondshire District Council’s leaders have been warned against creating “council tax martyrs” by enacting a controversial law which enables people who owe council tax to be jailed for up to three months.

The authority’s senior officers have recommended the authority confers on itself the ability to apply for a “commitment order”, a , dating back to the scrapping of the poll tax in 1993, for people who deliberately avoid paying council tax.

An officers’ report to a meeting of the council’s corporate board on Tuesday states the use of committal to prison would be used as a last resort, where all other enforcement action has proven unsuccessful.

The report states the council has never agreed a formal committal policy as it has previously been able to collect unpaid council tax by means such as passing the account to enforcement agents, threatening bankruptcy or arranging payments to be made direct from earnings.

The report states: “In recent years we have encountered several accounts where, for a number of reasons, we have been unsuccessful in using any or all of the above and this leaves us with no option but to consider commencing a committal to prison procedure.”

It underlines that before taking committal action the council would strictly follow legislative procedures and ensure “customers have applied for any eligible reduction, discount, disregard or exemption” as well as signpost people to benefits such as Universal Credit.

The report highlighted that every effort would also be made to identify vulnerable residents and before launching committal proceedings it would be established “the defaulter’s refusal to pay is due to wilful refusal of culpable neglect”.

The authority’s deputy leader Councillor Helen Grant said the proposed policy featured a number of safeguards to protect people who had suffered incidents such as domestic violence.

She said: “My view is that this is a diffficult line to balance. If anything it is a tool that you would hope never to use. ”

The law has proved contentious as non-payment of council tax is not a criminal offence and unlike for criminal tax fraud, defendants do not have the right to a jury trial or to legal aid. England is the only part of the UK where local authorities can still use council tax committal power.

Between 2010 and 2017, nearly 700 people were sent to prison for not paying their council tax.

Human rights charity Appeal, which is campaigning to end jailing people for non-payment of council tax, says evidence shows at a minimum, between 9.5 per cent and 18 per cent of people sent to prison for council tax non-payment, are sent there unlawfully.

Corporate board member Councillor Leslie Rowe said he would be opposing the powers in Richmondshire.

The deputy leader of The Green Party and Independent group said whilst appreciating the need to ensure that all residents pay their fair share of local taxes, the suggestion that citizens should be jailed for non payment seemed “a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.

He said moving to incarceration appeared to be an admission of failure by the council.

Coun Rowe said: “The council tax was introduced as a replacement for the much hated poll tax and we don’t want to make non-payment of council tax a political issue in the same way, perhaps creating council tax martyrs.”