Belfast Telegraph

Stormont debt collectors move cut £131m in overdue rates by just £173k

 

By Michael Sheils McNamee

Debt collectors employed by Stormont clawed back £173,000 in rates arrears in Northern Ireland as part of an experiment in using private agencies to recover outstanding cash.

The money was gathered on behalf of Land and Property Services (LPS), which is part of the Department of Finance.

Debt collectors were used 410 times between February 2017 and March this year, with money reclaimed from 49 individuals.

The six-figure sum is, however, just a fraction of the £131m owed in rates here.

Responding to queries from the Belfast Telegraph, the department explained that third-party agencies had been employed as part of a trial over the 2017/18 period.

In 2016 figures released to DUP MLA Keith Buchanan revealed unpaid rates arrears in Northern Ireland totalled just under £143m.

Finance Minister at the time Mairtin O Muilleoir said that while "many people are struggling to pay their bills", rates evaders would be chased down.

Freedom of Information (FoI)requests to all departments have revealed that only the Department of Finance was using private agencies to collect any form of debt.

All other departments either did not have debts to collect, or did not use agencies to do the work.

The Department of Finance said that in the event of non-payment of rates, LPS will "pursue recovery through the Enforcement of Judgments Office or bankruptcy proceedings".

"During 2017/18, LPS also carried out a small trial on the use of external agencies as an additional debt collection alternative," it added.

Asked if the department considered the amount recovered relatively small in relation to the overall amount of arrears still outstanding, it added: "In 2016/17 LPS collected some £1.245 billion in rates.

"LPS improvements to rate collection and recovery has resulted in a reduction in rate debt to £131m in 2017 and is now at its lowest point in 10 years."

Debts were collected on behalf of LPS by companies StubbsGazette and the Credit Protection Association.

Commenting on the figures, the SDLP said: "It is ridiculous that it took an FoI to have this information brought out into the open.

"Those living in debt are almost always dealing with a multitude of issues other than simply financial challenges.

"Therefore, it is incumbent upon the department to ensure that agencies are offering debt support and linking families in with the appropriate services, as opposed to merely demanding repayment."

A request for information on the amount of money paid to debt collection agencies was declined by the Department of Finance.

Belfast Telegraph

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