For many of us, increases in taxes might evoke a groan or an eye roll. For others, it might be a panic-inducing knot in your stomach as you try desperately to budget and figure out how you will pay. But for some, it could mean jail time. Melanie Woolcock, a single mother from Bridgend in Wales, was sentenced to 81 days in jail for failing to pay her council tax bill of £4,742. Because health conditions keep her from working, she found herself unable to pay her debts with benefits. “I was being treated exactly the same as someone who had murdered somebody,” she said after her release from jail. “But when you’re in there and you feel you haven’t committed a crime, you feel a vast injustice being done to yourself.” She is one of over 300 people who have faced prison sentences over council tax bills in the last six years.
Punishments for not paying council tax are becoming more severe, as taxes continue to rise and rise. “Amid warnings that ‘heavy-handed’ collection tactics are putting severe pressure on those already in financial difficulty, households face a fourth consecutive year of above-inflation council tax rises as local authorities attempt to recoup money cut from their budgets by central government,” the Guardian reports. “The annual band D bill will rise by an average of £75.60.”
"Jail for council tax debt is wrong, prisons are there for serious crime"
Rona Epstein is a law researcher at @covcampus and has campaigned against jail for council tax debt for many years.
— Victoria Derbyshire (@VictoriaLIVE) November 30, 2017
In theory, you should only face jail time over council tax for “willful neglect or willful refusal” to pay — in other words, not because you can’t afford it. But activists and campaigners say that it’s not that simple, that many of those who are “willful” simply don’t have the money. And, in the age of austerity, the amount of people struggling to pay has been skyrocketing — rising by almost 40 percent in just six years. Recent government figures show that the total amount of council tax arrears across England and Wales last year reached a staggering £944 million, 37 percent higher than in 2012-13, when it was £691 million. Debt is also on the rise. Council tax debt in 2017-18 was £3 billion, which is 27 percent higher than in 2012-13.
Many people were shocked to find that you could still be jailed for debt in the UK — and argued that jail should be reserved for serious offences, rather than struggling to make ends meet. As council tax and housing costs continue to rise, while equality and social support continue to drop, sentences like this could become increasingly common — a shocking indictment of Britain in 2019.