‘Inadequate and misinformed’ government response to petition calling for abolition of imprisonment for council tax debt

Press Release --- APPEAL --- 9 October 2019

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government published its response to the petition to abolish imprisonment as a penalty for non-payment of Council Tax on 8 October 2019, acknowledging that prison should generally be a last resort, but falling short of committing to scrap the practice and displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of the sanction’s legal nature.

The petition, first published in May 2019 by justice campaigner and barrister Chris Daw QC, and currently with over 12,000 signatures, calls for the scrapping of the power of local councils to seek the committal to prison of individuals for failing to pay their council tax, enabled through Regulation 47 of the Council Tax Regulations 1992.

“This response is nothing short of an outrage” says Chris Daw QC, “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.”

In September, think-thank Social Market Foundation published a scathing report by Mr Daw QC which highlighted the inconsistent use of this committal power across different councils, the disturbingly common instances of unlawful imprisonment by magistrates and the lack of necessity for a practice that is reminiscent of Victorian-era debtors’ prisons.

The Report drew attention to the Government’s misunderstanding of non-payment of council tax as a criminal offence, citing the incorrect use of the term ‘custodial sentence’ by Rishi Sunak MP, then Minister for Local Government. Worryingly, today’s Government response to the petition repeats this error in citing policies of the CPS and HMRC, two bodies involved in criminal prosecution, not civil committal orders.

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Advocate at the legal charity APPEAL, said “not only has the government refused to commit to ending this unjust and outdated use of imprisonment, they have fundamentally not understood that owing council tax is not a crime.”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. We urge the Minister to repeal Regulation 47 immediately and to implement more humane and effective forms of debt collection”.

The petition is live until November 14th 2019 and will be eligible for a debate in Parliament if it reaches 100,000 signatures.

Naima Sakande