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Priest takes on the bailiffs

10 January 2014


Making a stand: the Revd Paul Nicolson on his way to Enfield and Haringey Magistrates' Court in August 2013, for refusing to pay his council tax 

Making a stand: the Revd Paul Nicolson on his way to Enfield and Haringey Magistrates' Court in August 2013, for refusing to pay his council t...

A PRIEST in Haringey, North London, is issuing advice to residents facing court summonses, visits from bailiffs, and prison, if they do not or cannot contribute towards council tax.

The priest, the Revd Paul Nicolson, who retired in 1999 and founded the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, said on Monday that provision for those in "vulnerable situations" was "never talked about" by councils or bailiffs. He urged those present at the meeting to publicise it.

The national standards for enforcement agents, published by the Ministry of Justice, state that bailiffs have a part in "ensuring that the vulnerable and socially excluded are protected, and that the recovery process includes procedures agreed between the agent/agency and creditor about how such situations should be dealt with". The list of those deemed vulnerable includes the elderly, people with a disability, and single-parent families.

Local authorities can send bailiffs to residents' properties in a number of scenarios, including one in which the resident has failed to pay his or her council tax and, as a result, a magistrates' court has granted a liability order. Mr Nicolson said on Monday that Haringey Council had sent out bailiffs 9004 times in 2013/14. His guidance for residents emphasises that bailiffs cannot break into a home to enforce council tax, but can do so to enforce a fine, collect goods, and sell them.

The guidance also advises those affected how to apply for a discretionary payment and secure a doctor's letter, and it urges them not to avoid a court summons.

Mr Nicolson opposes the decision by Haringey Council to demand council tax from all residents of working age, regardless of income. While pensioners and those in receipt of specified disability benefits are protected, others formerly exempt from the tax must now pay 20 per cent of the bill. Last year, Mr Nicolson appeared in court after refusing to pay his own council-tax bill in protest (News, 9 August). He was subsequently issued with a £125 liability order.

Last month, he challenged Haringey Magistrates' Court to explain how it justified charging £125 for the orders, given to 23,227 households in 2012/13. "They must have known that people would not be able to pay," he said on Monday. "The process is merciless and callous."

The court had told him that his application was "futile and academic", he said.

Mr Nicolson hopes that the case will be taken up by the High Court, and said on Monday that it would be "wonderful" if he were sent to prison, as it would draw attention to the plight of those on low incomes seriously affected by the tax and liability orders. He said that the money raised by levying council tax on those previously exempt was equal to charging everyone else another 86p per week.

On Tuesday, a Haringey Council spokesperson said: "We have a statutory duty to collect council tax. The Government's decision to abolish council-tax benefit, and instruct all local authorities to introduce a new council-tax reduction scheme, left Haringey Council facing a funding gap of almost £4 million.

"The introduction of Haringey's Council Tax Reduction scheme followed extensive consultation with residents. Direct support from the Government for council-tax reduction schemes reduces year on year. It would simply not be sustainable for the council to absorb the cost of the Government's cut, especially when already faced with reductions in government grant of around £144 million up to 2016. Increasing council tax to cover the shortfall would have meant placing an extra burden on thousands of hard-pressed local families."

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