Thousands of region's poorest households facing council tax legal action (From Darlington and Stockton Times)
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Thousands of region's poorest households facing council tax legal action
GOVERNMENT welfare reforms have left more than 10,000 of the region's poorest households facing legal action for non-payment of council tax.
An investigation by The Northern Echo has revealed that one in three people in some areas of the North-East asked to pay council tax for the first time - or paying increased tax - have been issued with a court summons.
Local authorities last night blamed the Government for the problem while advice charities urged anyone slipping into debt to seek help immediately.
Responses to a freedom of information (FoI) request submitted by Labour and obtained by The Northern Echo highlight the scale of the debts caused by the Government's decision to cancel council tax benefit.
Councils were forced to implement their own council tax support system, with most in the region opting to offer some discounts to claimants, but still asking residents, including the unemployed and disabled, for a contribution.
Darlington Borough Council, along with Stockton and Middlesbrough, are asking residents who previously received a full discount to pay 20 per cent of their bill.
Other authorities, including Hambleton and Richmondshire, in North Yorkshire, as well as Hartlepool and Sunderland, are asking for 8.5 per cent of the full levy.
Darlington sent 6,558 people a council tax bill for the first time, or an increased bill, in April.
Of these, 2,281 have received court summonses for non-payment.
Sunderland has 19,500 new or increased council tax payers - and has issued 5,719 summonses, while Hartlepool has begun court action against 1,878 people out of around 6,000 former recipients of 100 per cent council tax benefit.
Elsewhere in the region, Redcar and Cleveland Council has issued 1,252 summonses to residents previously exempt or in receipt of a discount on their council tax bill.
Once councils have issued summonses they can go to court seeking a liability order, allowing bailiffs to recover the debt.
Councillor Bill Dixon, leader of Darlington Council, said the changes implemented by the Government had left many people "high and dry", but the authority had to pursue debtors.
"This isn't of our making, but we have to get on with it.
"We need people to talk to us. We will do everything we can to come up with an agreement - we don't want people running up debts, especially with payday loan companies, or not being able to sleep at night."
Coun Christopher Akers-Belcher, leader of Hartlepool Council, said his authority was also doing everything it could to help those struggling to pay the tax, including offering one of the most generous council tax support schemes in the region.
"It is a repayable debt, but we have a mechanism in place offering lots of different options, such as weekly payments and direct debits."
Sunderland City Council said it had received £2.8m less from central government as a result of the changes to the council tax benefit system.
Coun Mel Speding, cabinet secretary, said: "The City Council could not afford to make up the whole shortfall so it devised a scheme which it believed was fair as possible to residents."
Several councils were unable to provide the requested information, while data is still awaited from other authorities in the region.
Despite criticism from the Government, Durham County Council decided to protect discounts received by former council tax benefit claimants.
Dawn Gill, advice service manager at Darlington Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), said the service had seen a substantial increase in the number of people issued with a liability order since April.
"I would advise people if they are struggling not to bury their heads, but to seek advice from their local CAB."
The Department for Communities and Local Government said councils accounted for a quarter of all public spending and are forecast to spend £102bn this year - £4bn more than last year.
A spokesman added: "This Government's carefully considered reforms are helping councils to deliver sensible savings while protecting front-line services and achieve greater financial independence through new incentives that reward councils that support local economies."
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