Thousands go to court on tax rap

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THOUSANDS of Wiganers are being taken to court for unpaid council tax, new figures have revealed.

More than 12,500 home owners have already been issued with summonses for this financial year, a significant increase at the same stage in previous years.

And the increasing numbers have sparked concerns that the effects of next year’s welfare reforms could only exacerbate the problem.

Figures obtained from Wigan Council under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that in the first six months of the 2012/13financial year, 12,654 Wiganers were issued with court summonses for late payments.

Only 8,702 were brought to court the previous year although council advisors believe these relatively low numbers were due to a change in the system used to calculate non-paid rates.

However, in 2010/11, a total of 18,041 summonses were issued, meaning this year’s projected number will easily surpass that if it continues at the same rate.

Anthony Mohammed, Wigan Council’s head of citizen support, explained that the local authority is prioritising the acquirement of council tax due to local government budget cuts.

He said: “Wigan Council is experiencing significant financial pressure because of the reduced amount of money we receive from central government. These cuts to our budget mean we have to maximise the income we generate locally.

“One way of doing this is by pursuing those who are in council tax arrears. Collecting council tax is crucial if the vital public services we provide to our residents are to be maintained.”

Despite this hard-line approach to collection, Mr Mohammed did reveal that there is an element of flexibility should a resident struggle to meet the required rates.

He added: “We are mindful of the financial pressures many people across Wigan are struggling with and always attempt to support and cooperate with those experiencing difficulties as best we can.

“Taxpayers can request a payment date that suits their needs and nobody will receive a court summons without first being sent a letter asking them to bring their payments up to date. We encourage anyone experiencing difficulties paying council tax to contact us as soon as they can.”

The increase in the number of people missing their payments has sparked concerns about the effects of next year’s imminent welfare reforms.

As part of the government’s plans, a single Universal Credit System - merging six existing benefits - will be issued to those who receive welfare payments.

Council leader Lord Peter Smith and Coun Chris Ready have voiced concerns to meetings of the full council that the new system could see residents in extreme cases having to choose between feeding their families or paying their bills.

With regard to the change in the welfare system, Mr Mohammed said the council will be in turn starting a new method of obtaining council tax payments.

He said: “When the government’s welfare reforms are introduced next year we expect this to place even more pressure on those in financial hardship.

“So we are working hard to develop a new council tax collection strategy focused on maximising collection rates while also supporting residents.

“We will be offering more direct debit options and giving residents the chance to spread their payments more evenly across the financial year.”