Last November, Angela Barratt, a Salford Poverty Truth Commissioner, went public about the horrendous debt she had been saddled with, after Salford City Council set Jacobs bailiffs on her for an original Council Tax debt of £365. The Council's enforcement company added £1,100 charges.
After being threatened with 'removal of goods' by Jacobs, even though she had kept to her payment plan, Angela told her story to the Salford Star, to draw attention to the practice, explaining "Our councillors are supposed to help us but this is absolutely disgusting. The Council needs to stop this straight away." (see here)
Following the article, Salford City Mayor, Paul Dennett (who doesn't speak to the Salford Star), invited Angela in for a meeting, which was followed by a letter from Jacobs last week stating that "your account has now been returned to the Local Authority". In other words, the extra charges are almost certain to be dropped.
"If I hadn't have spoken out in the Star it wouldn't have been sorted, it would have carried on" says Angela "The Council has intervened somewhere along the line but this wasn't about me, it was about how many people in Salford they were doing it to, day in day out. I'm hoping that this will change things for people where enforcement services are being used.
"I'm not saying not to use them at all because there are people out there who just won't pay anything" she adds "The money has to be paid but don't send enforcement officers to people like me who have got children and are hiding in the house. It's awful. Imagine how many people they are doing it to, and how much money they've made."
Angela explains that, at the meeting with the Mayor, he confessed to being "shocked", when he heard about the bailiffs' charges...
"I told him 'You're using an enforcement team but you need to stop because people can't live as it is, and you're putting them in more debt'" she says "I gave him some suggestions, like making citizens advice places more available, rather than waiting for appointments; to give people more information when they have got to pay, and what payment plans they've got, rather than giving us enforcement officers and putting ridiculous debts on people.
"Universal Credit will make it worse" she adds "Before, you had your housing costs and Council Tax took out of your benefits but when you go on things like Universal Credits your bills are slapped on you all at once."
Yesterday, Salford Mayor, Paul Dennett, launched his 'anti-poverty strategy': 'No One Left Behind' at Media City to an invited audience (see previous Salford Star articles for further details – click here and click here)...
"We want our work to become a beacon of best practice in the fight against poverty" state the City Mayor and Youth Mayor in the introduction to the strategy.
Yet the strategy only promises a "review" of the Council's debt collection... "Our collective debt collection practices (including the use of external enforcement agencies) are robustly reviewed, so that they are undertaken in as sensitive a manner as possible, and in a way that does not create further hardship, distress or financial difficulties for vulnerable people."
Salford City UNISON, which represents front line council workers dealing with debt face-to-face every day, sent a response to the strategy to the Mayor... "Council Tax collection rates are low in the city" the union stated "In our view the emphasis needs to move away from further indebting those that cannot pay to ensuring those that can pay, pay promptly..."
UNISON added that the Council should "commit to not using bailiffs for those who cannot afford to pay"... A spokesperson told the Salford Star "We did send the Mayor our response but we have no acknowledgment and he did not invite UNISON to the launch of the strategy"...
The union, while welcoming the anti-poverty strategy, also made a number of other anti-poverty suggestions, which were equally ignored, including Council adoption of UNISON's Ethical Care Charter and Social Care Campaign, which calls for ensuring "that all employees on all contracts paid for by the City Council are on at least the real Living Wage" and are encouraged to join a trade union.
UNISON also pointed out that, despite the strategy emphasising employment as an answer to poverty, "Employment in and of itself is not the answer...The biggest increase at the moment is the working poor!"
UNISON felt that the anti-poverty strategy "underestimates the scale of the challenge we face, as whatever policies we pursue locally cannot ameliorate the effects of austerity. Austerity is causing greater poverty and alienation...
"That is why we must have a robust defence of local government and the services we offer" it added "First and foremost we must be willing to campaign openly for a change of direction. What form of campaigning should take place can involve unions, communities and politicians working together and should be subject of further discussions."
With the union blanked so far by the Mayor and no concrete promises by the Council to call off the bailiffs for those who don't speak out in the press, council workers and residents spoken to by the Salford Star were sceptical; that the 'anti-poverty strategy' would just be more words...
Read the full anti-poverty strategy - click here