Council crackdown on tax dodgers

Thousands of people who fail to pay their council tax are being targeted in a no nonsense crack down across Waveney, with many facing the very real threat of jail.

Thousands of people who fail to pay their council tax are being targeted in a crackdown across Waveney, with many facing the very real threat of jail.

The purge comes as Waveney District Council grapples to turn around its poor-performing tax collection service, which was slammed by local govern-ment watchdog the Audit Commission.

Figures obtained by the EDP show that during the past year, 4,564 court summonses have been issued for unpaid bills totalling nearly £1.8m.

The authority's hardline tactics have also seen officers actively pursue debts from just £2 as it tries to drive down its total council tax backlog of £3.6m.

Revenues and benefits manager Leigh Butler said the current high level of activity was "abnormal" and followed a low collection rate the previous year.

He said: "If people wilfully refuse to pay, then the magistrates will commit them to prison, but they will suspend this action on the basis that taxpayers enter into a payment agreement so we can get these debts paid.

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"If they don't pay, then they will be put in a position where there is no choice but to commit them to prison."

The shock of facing jail time would appear to be paying dividends as Mr Butler said he was unaware of anyone being sent to prison during this period.

However, the purge is to continue, with the council booking regular slots at Lowestoft Magistrates' Court over the next few months to hear the cases of persistent debtors.

During the past year, the council has also issued 5,523 reminder notices for nearly £1.6m of debts and 5,963 final notices for just short of £2m in unpaid taxes.

Mr Butler, who joined Waveney last year, said while the decision to collect debts from £2 may appear drastic, the fact the district had about 55,000 households meant the figures could soon add up.

He added: "We are catching up with people who have not been paying their tax. We are collecting debt from £2 and upwards, which is something this council hasn't done before. The trouble is the debt then becomes £20 or £30 and then another £30.

"We get criticised by the people who are paying their taxes if they feel we are not collecting from people who aren't paying.

"It's about getting the message across and the message is that council tax has to be paid on the first of every month and people can't just pay it when they feel like it."

Council tax debtors will be charged costs of at least £40 for the issue of a summons, but can stop proceedings by paying up before their case comes to court.

Mr Butler stressed that prison was a last resort and that anyone struggling to pay their bill should contact the council as soon as possible to avoid the need for formal action.