21,000 in court

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THE number of Wiganers up in court for failure to pay their council tax has seen a startling rise this year, new figures reveal.

More than 21,000 court summonses have been issued for the 2013/14 financial year, already surpassing the previous year’s figure of 14,092.

The increase has prompted fears that residents are struggling to balance their books since changes to the welfare system, some of which were introduced in April.

Alison Mckenzie-Folan, director of customer transformation at Wigan Council, said: “The Government’s welfare reforms mean some people who previously did not pay council tax now have to pay a small amount.

“Also, some people who previously paid only a small amount are being asked to contribute more. We understand this may cause some people difficulty.

“We’ve worked hard to inform residents affected by the changes. We have written to them to clearly explain their new financial obligations. We also now offer two additional direct debit dates in the month and many households now pay weekly or fortnightly, which helps them manage their budgets.”

Figures obtained by the Evening Post reveal that since May 2013, 21,118 court summonses have been issued to those falling behind on payments.

In December of 2012, the number for the 2012/13 financial year so far was 12,654, meaning there has been an increase of 67 per cent.

The welfare changes – including the Universal Credit system and the bedroom tax – were introduced in a bid by ministers to reduce spending, make work pay for people on benefits and streamline the system.

Wigan’s ruling Labour cabinet produced a report earlier this year that highlighted that residents have had to deal with the effects of more than one change and are struggling with domestic budgets as a result.

Ms McKenzie-Folan added that the council is offering a host of financial advice services for those struggling to manage their budgets.

She said: “We always encourage people to contact us and let us know if they are having problems paying their council tax so we can find ways to support them, wherever possible.

“I’m pleased to report many residents affected by the government’s welfare changes have paid the money they owe us. Regrettably, however, a minority have failed to do so. Failure to pay council tax is a serious offence. The council needs the money to fund public services. It is only fair on those people who do pay their taxes that we take action against those who don’t.

“But the council is also committed to supporting those people experiencing money difficulties. We’re about to launch a major marketing campaign to encourage people to avoid getting into debt and we’ll be working with different organisations to help residents improve their money management and support those who maybe struggling with their finances.

“I’m also pleased to say we have banned payday loan companies from council-owned advertising space and barred their websites from our computer servers.”