Public Services Management: So, farewell then, poll tax: No one will lament the 'community charge', least of all the people who have to collect it. Paul Gosling reports

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LOCAL authority treasurers may not actually be throwing parties on 1 April, but many will feel like doing so. Farewell to the poll tax, a warm welcome to the council tax. Collecting money is never easy, but no one believes that the council tax will cause anything like the problems of the 'community charge'.

There will be fewer bills, as the council tax is levied per household rather than per person. People on income support, who were required to pay 20 per cent of the poll tax, will be exempted from the council tax. And there is no mass campaign to refuse to pay the council tax. Not that the poll tax will easily be forgotten as councils are still owed around pounds 2bn in arrears.

Three months short of the end of the financial year, inner London authorities were still owed 40 per cent of this year's bills, with Hackney collecting less than half the amount due.

In the third quarter over two and a quarter million people had been taken to court for non-payment, and almost 10,000 people had attended their court hearings, causing havoc in the legal system. Many people are now serving prison sentences for non-payment; some for refusal to pay and others because they have no means to pay, according to the Citizen's Advice Bureau.

Such effects of the poll tax will take time to work through the system. The Conservative- controlled London Boroughs Association (LBA) says that councils will still be processing attachment of benefits orders well into the next century.

Will Tuckley, finance officer of the Labour-controlled Association of London Authorities (ALA), says: 'The poll tax doesn't finish on 1 April. We'll be collecting it for years to come. There have been well over one million summonses issued in London since the start of the poll tax, and a lot of these are for the 20 per cents.

'We're honour-bound to collect these but they are relatively small. At some point authorities can take a view whether a debt is collectible, but they couldn't write them off for a few years, auditors wouldn't allow us to do it, and I don't think authorities would want to.'

A continuing concern is the variance between the council tax collection rate of 98 per cent expected by the Department of Environment, compared with that anticipated by the councils themselves, which in some London boroughs is below 90 per cent.

The Treasury is withholding poll tax relief for the 1991 / 92 year for non-payers and part-payers. Pete Challis of the Local Government Information Unit explains: 'The Government reduced the poll tax by pounds 140, but it was not handed over, and is only paid on the basis of the number collected in full.'

Local authorities have been forced to adopt more rigorous collection methods in order to obtain overdue poll tax, and many of these will be built into the council tax collection system. The use of outside agenciesis likely to remain. Some authorities have been successful in encouraging payment by credit card and direct debit. Councils such as Brent, in north London, offered discounts for early payment of poll tax and are doing the same for the council tax.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa) is worried by the use of discounts and prize draws to encourage early payment. Arthur Boulter, head of the local government division, says: 'The problem is that it helps those who can best pay. The tax has to be increased to cover the discount. The use of prizes, such as a car for the first person to pay, seems to me decidedly questionable about whether it is legal, as the powers only exist to give discounts.'

Leicester City Council initiated an advertising campaign on Central Television after conducting a survey into poverty. This found that people on low incomes were most worried by their poll tax arrears, yet treated it as their lowest debt priority. The fear of eviction for rent arrears, and disconnection by the utilities, meant that these debts were paid first. The authority now promotes a voluntary agreement on arrears, termed a 'commitment contract'.

David Cattermoul, assistant city treasurer of Leicester council, says: 'We got our advertising people to look at promoting the idea, and we were told that television is the method which is best and quickest. Councils have generally avoided it because of the cost and targeting, but it does get attention in people's own homes.'

The cost of the campaign was pounds 6,000, including production, for 21 spots, including one during the final episode of Inspector Morse. Another pounds 10,000 was spent on a local press and radio campaign. These achieved 5,000 arrangements, worth pounds 1.5m.

The cost of Leicester's campaign compares unfavourably with the charges of its collection agency, which is pounds 1 per case. This comparison is misleading, says Mr Cattermoul, as voluntary agreements are 'more likely to stick'.

Leicester also has a support team of telephone callers, who make contact prior to committal hearings, 'though we've not actually committed anyone - we'd rather have the money than commit anyone to prison. You have to make sure that it's the people who are refusing to pay who are actually going to jail, because you lose the debt.'

Other councils are more willing to send people to prison, according to the National Association of Citizen's Advice Bureaux (CABs). Cases monitored by CABs include a couple on family credit who were ordered to pay pounds 20 a week for three months, with a suspended sentence. In another case 'a heavily pregnant young woman on income support' was required to pay pounds 14 a fortnight or go to prison for three months.

CABs and the National Consumer Council have also been strongly critical of the use of bailiffs, who they say are often overly aggressive, with too many powers in law. Many authorities have been successful in recent months in substantially reducing the amount of outstanding poll tax, simply by allocating more resources.

Middlesbrough, named last November as having the worst collection rate in England, has now collected 90 per cent of this year's bills. Following a better than expected collection rate this year, Sedgefield in Co Durham is not levying a council tax next year, although it will be collecting one on behalf of the county council.

Some authorities may wish to put a clear full stop behind the poll tax experience, and avoid publicising council tax collection. Mr Tuckley of the ALA explains: 'I don't think councils will go for very high profile campaigns in case of association with the poll tax.'

Before authorities crack open the champagne they should reflect on the caution of the local government associations, which predict a permanent culture of non- payment. It is even possible that there could be a call to refuse to pay the council tax.

Mike Waddington, a spokesman for Militant, influential in the Anti-Poll Tax Federation and its non-payment campaign, warns: 'We are still looking at council tax levels, and how the benefits work out, especially for people on the poverty line. We haven't ruled out a council tax non-payment campaign.'

(Photograph omitted)