Summonses issued to 3.9 million over poll tax

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The poll tax continues to clog the courts and wreck the budgets of local authorities, figures from the Lord Chancellor's Department showed yesterday.

In the first half of this year, 3.9 million people in England and Wales had court summonses issued against them because they refused to pay the flat-rate charge.

About 1.3 million paid the bills after receiving the orders to pay from magistrates.

But in 2.6 million cases the courts were forced to go a stage further and issue liability orders - which allow a council to dock a debtor's pay and benefits or send in the bailiffs to seize goods.

Council leaders said yesterday that they were worried that the mass refusal to pay had created a permanent 'non-payment culture' which could outlive the poll tax.

They feared that the unpopular charge had turned the once law abiding British 'into tax evading Italians' who regarded it as morally acceptable to cheat the state.

Keith Beaumont, Assistant Financial Secretary of the Labour- controlled Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA), said he was waiting to see how the Government's new council tax, which will replace poll tax next April, would be received by the public.

'The non-payment culture could well survive,' he said. 'A lot will depend on how fair people think the council tax is.'

The Lord Chancellor's figures showed that poll tax proceedings had taken up 7,972 hours of court time between 1 January and 30 July. There had been 4,980 court sittings devoted solely to trying to force people to pay the charge.

The AMA said that councils would still be trying to get poll tax money from non-payers in 2000. Inevitably, the shortfall in income would mean higher bills when the council tax was introduced.

The chairwoman of the Conservative-controlled Association of District Councils' finance committee, Rita Taylor, said: 'Some councils are really going to be burdened with overwhelming debt but the Government does not seem flexible enough in its strategy to allow them to pay it off over a number of years.'

Unpaid poll tax in Scotland amounts to pounds 525m - 20 per cent of the money councils should have received since the tax was introduced in 1989.