The government has insisted that although imprisonment was a last resort for non payment of council tax it was still an option which would be exercised when appropriate. In response to a petition calling for the abolition of imprisonment as a penalty for council tax debt, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government said: ‘Local authorities should consider carefully the reasons for non-payment before seeking a committal warrant from the magistrates’ court, which can only issue a warrant if it is satisfied that the reason for non-payment is wilful refusal or culpable neglect.’
Campaigners have labelled this response as ‘inadequate and misinformed’ with the government failing to fundamentally understand the detrimental impact of this policy as well as its true legal nature. The petition was first published in May by Chris Daw QC as reported here calling for local councils to scrap a power which allowed them to commit individuals to prison for non-payment of their council tax. Currently, over 12,000 signatures have been collected.
The Social Market Foundation, a think-tank, published a report written by Daw QC in September 2019 which highlighted how common unlawful imprisonment by magistrates are for non-payment of council taxes and an overall stark inconsistent use of committal powers across councils.
The report outlined that the government has wrongly categorised the non-payment of council tax as a criminal offence worthy of a custodial sentence. Instead, according to the law, this should be a civil committal order. This is echoed in the government’s response to the petition where they cite the policies of the CPS and HMRC – bodies both involved in criminal prosecutions.
Chris Daw QC has called the response an outrage: ‘There has been no attempt to address the fundamental injustice of sending only one group of civil debtors to prison, always from amongst the poorest and vulnerable in society. I am determined to keep fighting to get this Victorian law scrapped, once and for all. Prison should punish crimes, not poverty.’
Naima Sakande, Women’s Justice Advocate at the legal charity APPEAL, said ‘not only has the government refused to commit to ending this unjust and outdated use of imprisonment, they have fundamentally not understood that owing council tax is not a crime’. ‘This response evidences a lack of serious engagement with individuals, charities and debt advice organisations who are unified in their belief that the use of imprisonment for council tax debt is a disgraceful scar on the so-called justice system.’
The petition remains live until November 14 and, if it hits 100,000 signatures, it will be eligible for a debate in Parliament.