THOUSANDS of people across the North-East asked Citizens Advice for help last year as they fell into arrears with their council tax payments.

New figures published today revealed more than 3,800 people across County Durham, Tyne and Wear and Northumberland, who were behind on payments admitted they could not afford to pay their debt.

On Tuesday, Citzens Advice said those in council tax arrears had an average of just £7 left at the end of month once they had covered their living costs.

The Northern Echo:

It said 4 in 10 people in the region said they had no money left at all, while 9 out of 10 also owed money on other household bills.

What the charity is saying

Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Government regulations push local authorities to use harsh collection processes.

"They pile rapidly-escalating debts on people who barely have enough money to get by. 

“Many people who need our help with council tax arrears have no more than a few pounds spare every month to repay their debts.

"An unexpected bill for thousands of pounds, accompanied by legal threats and bailiff action, is terrifying for the person concerned and ineffective for the council trying to recover the debt."

The figures came months after a Freedom of Information request revealed for every £1 of debt referred to bailiffs from councils, only 27p is ever returned.

The Northern Echo:

Dame Guy added: ”To protect people from further harm, the government must change the rules to give councils the flexibility to collect council tax fairly and compassionately.”

Dame Guy condemned the current system which allows for the potential of a missed payment to escalate to debts totalling above £2,000 in just nine weeks. 

Last year, Citizens Advice said it helped more than 83,000 people in England with council tax problems, about 40 percent more than the next biggest debt issue.

'Bailiffs should only ever be used as a last resort'

Responding to the figures Councillor Richard Watts, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board, said: “Councils have a duty to their residents to collect taxes so important services, like caring for older and disabled people, protecting children, fixing roads and collecting bins are not affected.

"They strive to recover unpaid tax as sympathetically as possible and to provide support to households at risk of financial exclusion or hardship.  

"As the Citizens Advice’s report makes clear, this needs to be supported by better guidance and funding.

"Councils would be in favour of it being made easier for them to recover money without having to use bailiffs, and would support the removal of the requirement for the entire annual sum to become payable if an instalment is missed. 

“Bailiffs should only ever be used as a last resort by councils.

"Before it gets to that stage, people will have been encouraged to apply for financial support by their council.

"Anyone having trouble paying their council bills should get in touch with their local authority for financial help and advice as soon as possible.”