Georgia Preece, Research Assistant, Money and Mental Health

Supporting people with mental health problems with council tax

11 November 2021

Increases in council tax this year have impacted everyone in England and Wales, and have compounded existing financial difficulties caused by the pandemic. As well as dealing with existing price hikes, families can expect to be paying even more in council tax with rises of up to £200 predicted in the next few years. 

But our new national polling found that people with mental health problems are already three times more likely to have fallen behind on their council tax payments during the pandemic than those without. Our latest research published today explores why people with mental health problems are more likely to struggle and how local councils can help.

Difficult eligibility criteria and application processes

Lots of people are entitled to a council tax discount in the UK, perhaps due to being a single occupant, benefits eligibility or because they’re experiencing a severe mental illness. But councils don’t always make it obvious who might be eligible for a discount. Some people with a severe mental illness will be entitled to a discount, but the way councils describe their eligibility criteria — and the lack of promotion of the discount — means it’s not always obvious that people with mental health problems might be eligible.  

Even if you do manage to find out that you qualify for a discount, you might still struggle to find clear information on how to apply, and the process itself can be pretty complicated. Our Research Community told us about having to go through difficult application processes to get discounts. Long and complicated forms can be a lot harder to navigate when you are experiencing common symptoms of mental health problems, like a lack of concentration, low mood and lack of motivation. 

“[I] had to fill in a form online at the Council Offices as I have no internet at home and I had help from a member of staff with some of the questions, where I would have difficulty in filling it myself and would not be accepted” Expert by experience.

People with mental health problems also often have serious difficulties engaging with at least one common communication channel which can make the task of applying for discounts all the more tricky. Our previous research highlighted how crucial it is for essential service providers to respect people’s communication preferences.

“I can’t find the courage to make a simple telephone call.  I can’t even phone my children. This means that when a supplier only operates by phone calls, I am stuck with them and end up paying bills for services I either don’t want, or don’t have.” Expert by experience

What can councils do to help?

The consequences of failure to ensure all those who are eligible access discounts, or poor communication can have a huge and lasting impact. People with mental health problems can potentially face bailiff recovery action, and at the extreme criminal charges for non-payment of council tax. Some members of the Research Community were even met with bailiffs before a repayment plan was offered.

“Had issues with a bailiff regarding council tax… That affected me quite a lot I was scared to leave the house” Expert by experience

But councils can make changes that address the difficulties people with mental health problems face, by signposting to discounts as standard, using clear and accessible language, and routinely asking for and respecting people’s communication preferences. Local councils should also ensure that where their service has note of or recognises a person’s vulnerability that they are exempt from bailiff action to avoid causing unnecessary harm. 

Ensuring councils are appropriately targeting support at the people who need it, is crucial to avoid devastating financial and mental health consequences. These changes would be a huge step in the right direction to ensure their services are accessible and that people with mental health problems can be better supported to avoid falling behind with payments. 

A win-win situation

It’s not only residents that can benefit from better communication. Councils can also potentially cut costs in their own debt collection practices and recoup a higher proportion of council tax debt using a softer approach. The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham pioneered an “ethical debt collection” approach, by working with families before they were in problem debt. As a result, they managed to increase their council tax collection rate, to an impressive 97.76%.

Hopefully, more councils will follow in their footsteps in the future. Softer approaches that are tailored to residents’ preferred communication methods, alongside increased support, break down access barriers for people with mental health problems. This works towards tackling the inequality and adverse outcomes that people with mental health problems face.