Friday, September 30, 2011

Bristol bandits

The figures for Bristol Council Tax summonses and liability orders are in, and very interesting reading they make. With 166,380 households, the council produced 22,700 chargeable summonses in the last financial year, giving a summons-to-household ratio of 1:7.

However, with a single fee of £103, the council is way on top of the league in its fee level, grossing £2,338,100 in the last financial year and pulling in over £28 million since the charging scheme started. But what is especially interesting about Bristol though is that it is one of the few councils that has been asked to justify its charges and its answer very much conforms with what we were told yesterday.

We do, though, seem to have a slight variation on a theme. The authority assigns a notional percentage of staff time spent on "recovery and enforcement", then applying that percentage to the overall cost of the revenue collection operation in order to work out its summons cost.

Thus we see in 2007/8, 27.3 percent of the staff time – amounting to 21 full-time equivalents - allocated to "recovery and enforcement", which means that the cost of sending out a claimed 16,000 summonses is that percentage of the £5.7 million total budget – or £1.6 million. Some of the tasks specified, that the costs supposedly cover, are set out here.

One really has to do a double-take here, for looking at the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992, the allowable charges are set out quite clearly – in summary here:
After a summons has been issued (but before the application for a liability order is heard): a sum equal to the costs reasonably incurred by the authority in connection with the application up to the time of the payment or tender, Section 34 (5)

After the liability order has been issued: a sum equal to the costs reasonably incurred by the applicant in obtaining the order. Section 34 (7)(b)
By any reckoning, charging a single fee to cover summonses and liability orders cannot be legal. If the council sends out a summons, and they get a payment by return, it has incurred nothing more than the cost of sending out a mailshot, very similar to sending out a final notice, which is also a statutory document.

And here, from Nuneaton and Bedfordshire on 26 October 2010, we get the cost to the authority of producing a final notice, including stationery, printing, postage and staffing costs is £1.22 per notice. Even adding a certain amount of extra processing to get the court approval for the summonses, you would be very hard put to it to double this cost, which means we are talking of a huge rip-off.

Then one comes to the liability order, where the law states that the costs apply to obtaining the order. There is not the remotest sanction for ladling in all the follow-up costs, which has Bristol allocating the costs of 70 percent of the 23-strong "customer services team" to recovery and enforcement.

What Bristol officials have not actually worked out is that, with 21 staff (FTEs) allocated, that amounts annually to over 35,000 staff hours devoted to its notional 16,000 defaulters. That gives them over two hours each. Council officials could afford to hand-deliver each summons and sit down with defaulters to discuss payments over cups of tea.

As the evidence builds, therefore, it becomes more and more clear that officials are abusing the system. And up there in the premier league reside the Bristol Bandits.