£6million owed by tax defaulters

SUFFOLK council tax defaulters reneged on payments totalling nearly £6 million during the last financial year, according to new figures out today.The controversial levy has led to many protests with some elderly rebels, including 84-year-old Elizabeth Winkfield and Sylvia Hardy, 71, both from Devon, ending up in court for refusing to pay.

SUFFOLK council tax defaulters reneged on payments totalling nearly £6 million during the last financial year, according to new figures out today.

The controversial levy has led to many protests with some elderly rebels, including 84-year-old Elizabeth Winkfield and Sylvia Hardy, 71, both from Devon, ending up in court for refusing to pay.

However the vast of debtors are less principled and just don't bother paying. With the debts of three authorities in Suffolk rising drastically according to the government, COLIN ADWENT investigates why they are so high and how much it costs the taypayer to bring defaulters to court.

SUFFOLK'S six local authorities failed to collect a total of £5,857,000 in council tax for the period 2004-2005, it emerged today.

Official figures show three of the councils' debts rose between nine and 17 per cent on the previous year.

Throughout England the amount of uncollected levy is now running at £589m according to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the worst culprit being Birmingham with a debt of £11.8m

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Although Suffolk's portion of the debt is relatively small in comparison, there have been significant increases in Mid Suffolk where the local authority was owed £655,000 - a rise of more than £100,000 on the previous year - and also in St Edmundsbury borough where the debt is now £1,024,000, up from £872,000 in 2003/04.

However, Sally Easton, spokeswoman for Mid Suffolk, defended the council's collection record. She said: “Mid Suffolk District Council has an excellent record in collecting council tax.

“In 03/04 the amount of Council Tax charged was £34,137,000 of which 98.39 per cent was collected that same year. In 04/05 the amount to be collected went up to £36,468,000 because of an increase in council tax and the reduction of discount from 50pc to 0pc on empty homes and 10pc on second homes, of which 98.22pc was collected the same year.

“The amount of unpaid council tax in the same year should be treated with caution. Unpaid council tax is collected continuously for past years and the outstanding amount is always being reduced. For example, the amount outstanding on 04/05 as of September 30 has reduced from £655,000 to £450,000.

“Unpaid council tax is only ever written off where collection is deemed impossible. This is likely to amount to about £50,000 a year. Court costs of £30 are passed on to debtors through their council tax accounts.”

Maria Staff, spokeswoman for St Edmundsbury Borough Council, also said its debt would decrease: “Uncollected council tax is higher for the period 2004/5, due to the implementation of a new revenues and benefit system during 2004. The section is now pursuing uncollected council tax and we are confident that this figure will decrease over the next year.

“Any debts are pursued through the court system and we focus on keeping a record of the value of the write-off rather than the number of accounts.”

A third council, Suffolk Coastal, has also seen a rise in debt from £879,000 in 2003/04 to £962,000 over the last financial year, although it defended its performance by saying it was above the national average.

A spokesman for the council said: “To put it in perspective, Suffolk Coastal is currently collecting £53,500,000 of council tax a year, of which roughly 10 per cent is to fund its services, with the rest going to the county council, police and town and parish councils. Our collection rates for the last two years have been 98.1 per cent which is well above the national average for all councils.

“Although our percentage of collection did not change between the two years, the amount uncollected rose because the total figure due to be collected increased.

“Last year we sent around 13,000 reminder letters to residents, and issued 2,407 summonses to those who needed an even firmer nudge to get them to pay. The cost of our recovery team is £100,000 a year, and their on-going efforts to collect outstanding debts can be seen by the fact that we decreased arrears by £100,000 over the last month alone.”

Bob Southgate, head of revenues for Babergh District Council, which has decreased its debt by £5,000, warned those who have reneged on paying there would be no hiding place.

Mr Southgate said: “Anyone owing Babergh District Council any outstanding council tax has no reason to sleep soundly. Currently, we have collected 99.5 per cent of the tax due for 2004/05 which leaves us just under £200,000 still to collect. So far we have only lost £21,000 as bad debts and will continue to target the comparatively small amount still unpaid. Such efforts cost about £56,000 per year, but we hope our council taxpayers know that it is money well spent in the ongoing fight against the minority of evaders.”

No one was available to comment on behalf of Ipswich Borough Council.

Totals showing amount of council tax owed this year to authorities in Suffolk compared to last year.

Council 2003/04 2004/05

Ipswich £1,385,000 £1,386,000

Suffolk Coastal £879,000 £962,000

Mid Suffolk £551,000 £655,000

Babergh £476,000 £471,000

Waveney £1,240,000 £938,000

St Edmundsbury £872,000 £1,023,000

Forest Heath £462,000 £422,000

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