Housing debts to be written off

BAD housing debts are set to cost households in Ipswich more than a quarter of a million pounds, The Evening Star can reveal today.The borough council was tonight expected to write off £254,447 it overpaid in housing benefit between 2002 and late last year.

BAD housing debts are set to cost households in Ipswich more than a quarter of a million pounds, The Evening Star can reveal today.

The borough council was tonight expected to write off £254,447 it overpaid in housing benefit between 2002 and late last year.

The amount it overpaid ranged from just 1p to a staggering £29,350.

Officers have now decided it will not be possible to reclaim this money and the council's executive is being asked to write it off.

When officers started tackling the problem there were 468 bad debts totalling more than £308,000. However enforcement action led to more than £54,000 of that being reclaimed.

Officers believe the rest is unrecoverable. In some cases the people who were overpaid housing benefit have disappeared or died.

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In other cases officers believe it would be impossible to reclaim the money - for instance if they have gone bankrupt or are now in prison.

And with some of the small sums involved it would cost more to recover the money than it would to write it off.

However council leader Liz Harsant was not happy about the write-offs: “These sums go back many years, to long before we took over the council in 2004.

“The biggest bad debt, dating back to 2002, was someone who was prosecuted for benefit fraud.

“She was ordered to pay it back out of her benefit payments but the amount that she could be ordered to pay was very limited.

“We made another attempt to claim back more money from her recently by sending in the bailiffs, but when they went in they found there really was nothing of any value to take.”

Mrs Harsant said many of the people whose debts were written off led chaotic lives: “What can you do? If you drive them out of their homes then they will end up as homeless and you have to spend yet more helping them then.”

She said this year's figures were especially high because they represented three years' of bad debts: “We were not able to pursue them while the new Pericles system was being installed, but now the problems with that have been eased and we are back on track.

“The council does normally have to write off about £80,000 in bad debts every year, so given this is three years' worth that is not excessive,” she added.

Does the council do enough to recover bad debts? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.