Public bodies dealing with people in debt.
My casework can often involve people who face problems due to being in debt. So I was interested to read this report, commissioned by the Welsh Government, from the Wales Centre for Public Policy about how public bodies could better respond to vulnerable debtors.
In 2018 the then Cabinet Secretary for Finance asked us to review the evidence on how public services, and their contracted partners in Wales, could better respond to vulnerable debtors, especially those subject to prosecution and prison. We’re pleased to attach a copy of the resulting report.
Working with Professor Sharon Collard from the Personal Finance Research Centre, University of Bristol, we have focused on council tax and rent arrears; analysing the data on the scale and nature of the problem in Wales, and reviewing the evidence base on approaches to addressing it. This desk based review was complemented by a stakeholder event, chaired by the then Cabinet Secretary, with representatives from Welsh local authorities, housing associations and other stakeholders.
What emerges from our work are a number of key messages:
- ONS data suggests that 67,600 (5.2%) of households in Wales have problem debt. Typically these households will have multiple debts, but in recent times a greater number of citizens are experiencing problems with household and government debt compared to those experiencing consumer debt.
- Early intervention is key. Support for vulnerable debtors prior to enforcement action is more effective than support during or following such action. Personalised and proactive support, delivered through multi-agency partnerships, and rooted in an understanding of the needs of individual citizens is more effective than a generic, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.
- There is a wealth of evidence of what good practice looks like, and examples of this being pursued in Wales, but it is not clear that this is the norm. Local authorities and registered social landlords should be able to demonstrate through available reporting mechanisms how they are sharing and adopting good practice in identifying and supporting vulnerable debtors.
- There is scope for increased collaboration between local authorities and registered social landlords in areas such as front-line staff training, and in data sharing at a local level.
- There should be a consistency of expectations and treatment across Wales for those individuals who are at risk of or have incurred arrears, with organisations working to an agreed set or principles or standards. The published evidence suggests that registered social landlords have performed better in providing targeted early support and there is scope for local authorities to learn from and adopt this approach. At the same time, the new WLGA-led Council Tax Protocol for Wales is a positive development and does provide a useful example of shared standards.
- Recent legislation has opened up the potential for better data sharing between Local Authorities, UK and Welsh Government departments and other organisations. We heard about the example of pilot work in England involving HMRC/local authority data sharing – an approach which Wales could look to, with Welsh Government potentially facilitating and supporting data sharing initiatives.
- Finally, there are concerns about the capacity of local authorities and housing associations to respond to anticipated future demands (particularly in relation to any roll-out of Universal Credit) and this may overwhelm any attempt to move to a more preventative approach.
Wales Centre for Public Policy”