Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Ensuring those who can contribute, do contribute

The levels of unplanned, unwanted indebtedness in the UK are increasing. Ongoing welfare reform and continued decreases in real income for the least well-off in society means that a growing number are struggling to meet their financial commitments.

I have been reviewing data captured by TIX, our insolvency management platform which has visibility of over 90% of all personal insolvencies; it reveals that in the first quarter 2010 only 9.2% of IVA proposals were from consumers with more than 50% of their income coming from benefits and pensions. By 2014 this had more than doubled to 23.6%.*

As a result of this financial pressure, consumers are increasingly making tough decisions about which of their debts they can service and we are seeing a prioritisation of private debts over local government debts, due to the perception that private companies, such as banks, will pursue debts with much greater intensity. 

However, in the current climate, local authorities are also having to make their own ‘tough-decisions’ as they try to deal with on-going budget cuts. With the percentage of debt owed to government on the increase, the sooner Authorities address the challenge, the better.

Council tax

Although average in-year council tax collection rates in England are at an impressive 97.4%, the value of the unpaid 2.6% is, however, over £600million per year. The process for recovering this debt has traditionally been an almost exclusive reliance on third party Enforcement Agents (bailiffs). The effectiveness and fairness of the bailiff approach is the subject of much debate and it remains to be seen whether the recently introduced regulatory changes go anyway to address concerns. What is clear is that many of the innovative collection strategies widely adopted across the private sector are not utilised. When we benchmarked council tax collection performance, against that of the private sector, we found that 16 of the top 100 local authorities in England were potentially underperforming in terms of council tax collections when compared to the private sector ranking for their area. Within that 16, five of the top 10 largest local authorities by population had relatively poor actual in-year collections performance relative to their private-sector collections ranking.**

Service lines at a disadvantage

But what about those areas where the use of Enforcement Agents isn’t available? Our experience is that areas such as sundry debt, adult social care, and overpaid benefits are often reliant on internal legal service teams who do not have the resource to pursue all cases. As a result, in many areas, those owing money have learned to prioritise other debts over those owed to the council. Letters are often left unopened and council collectors have little re-course with those who are deliberately avoiding payment. In an environment where creditors are becoming increasingly sophisticated in the ways they compete for every pound, this leaves local authorities at a distinct disadvantage.

Three tips

The work our consultants have done with local authorities who are seeking to improve collection performance in order to meet growing budgetary pressures has found there are immediate and straight-forward improvements which can be made. Our top three tips are:

1. Agencies can unlock value - If your existing collections processes aren’t yielding results, don’t let the debt become old and unworked – think about engaging a debt collection agency, or a panel of agencies. You will have to spend some money, but there will be a net benefit.
2. Bureaux reporting is a proven deterrent - Consider providing credit reference agencies with data about your service users who owe you money. We have found that this alone deters those who can pay but are making an active decision to deprioritise your debt.
3. A full view of the service user and what they owe will transform your approach -   Individuals are often in debt to multiple service lines – a review we conduced of one council’s arrears revealed that 30% of its service users had debts across multiple revenue lines. By working together you can share knowledge and benefit from streamlined approaches. You can also make the experience of dealing with your council more positive in that service users can talk to one person or department about all of their debt.
Paul Fielder, Strategic Account Director, TDX Group

* TIX Q1 2014
** Analysis conducted by TDX Group in August 2013

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