CASH-strapped Dudley Council has been writing off millions of pounds in unpaid debts despite spending thousands on bailiffs.

Figures obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request show £9.6m in cash owed to the authority has been cancelled since 2019.

The figures include the council’s forecast for 2023/24, which is projected to be the second-highest year for unpaid debts at £2.5m.

The worst year was 2019/20 when £2.6m was cancelled including £500,000 in unpaid council tax and £930,000 in unpaid rent.

Iain Newman, director of finance at Dudley Council, said: “We do everything we can to recover as much debt as possible and our council tax collection rates in particular are consistently amongst the highest in the region. 

“Last year we collected 96.5 percent of council tax in year which will increase over time.” 

The council was unable to provide further information on how much of the remainder of the written-off debt was unpaid loans to commercial or charitable organisations.

When residents fall behind with their bills the law gives councils tough powers to recover the cash including court action and the use of debt collectors.

Under current regulations people who miss an instalment of their council tax will receive a reminder asking for payment within seven days.

If that reminder is missed, a summons to magistrates’ court is requested and the full remaining amount for the year must be paid together with costs.

If people pay their instalment after the reminder the situation returns to normal, if people need to be sent three reminders in the same financial year the council demands the full year’s tax.

If the full amount is not paid magistrates may allow the council to take cash from earnings or benefits, or use enforcement agents to recover the debt including additional costs.

In the last financial year the council spent a total of £26,800 on bailiffs who can seize goods from debtors’ homes after gaining entry, which in some circumstances can be by force.

If bailiffs fail to revolver the debt, non-payers can be jailed.

Mr Newman added: “We write to people, call and even make home visits on occasions as well as using debt recovery agencies to recoup outstanding money. 

“We also prosecute people through the courts where necessary. 

“Only as a last resort is any debt written off when all other possible options have been exhausted.”

Nationally the figures for uncollected council tax are eye-watering.

According to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in 2022/23 local authorities wrote off £187 million of uncollected council tax.

In December 2023 the parliamentary committee for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities found that demanding all the years’ council tax after missed payments could cause debts to escalate quickly and fear of tough enforcement forced people to put paying council tax above eating and heating.

The committee concluded: “In particular, we believe the ultimate sanction of imprisonment is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”