FOR many people, the most common debt they’ll encounter is council tax arrears.

In 2022/23 almost £3 billion was billed in Scotland for council tax and over 96% was repaid. Around £109 million was unpaid and will be pursued as arrears.

Every year, thousands of people have difficulty with their council tax. In 2021/22, council tax debt was almost £116m; in 2018/19 it was £71m.

The challenge is that some people have council debts over several years as well as the obligation to pay their current council tax liability.

Discounts are available, including for single-person households and exemptions are available for students. Council tax reductions are available for those in receipt of certain social security benefits or in council tax bands E to H with income and capital below set thresholds.

Yet, the reality is many people on low or modest household incomes have to pay council tax and struggle to do so, especially with the huge increases in the cost of food, energy bills, rent and mortgages.

The average council tax debt for Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx) clients is £3,420, which is almost three times the average annual council tax bill in Scotland.

How might we ease some of the financial pressure for Scots struggling to repay council tax arrears? There’s been talk of making council tax fairer since 2007 but it’s never happened and there seems no appetite to do so.

A new Bankruptcy and Diligence (Scotland) Bill going through the Scottish Parliament clearly provides an obvious route to make some practical changes that could help people in the cost of living crisis.

The latest Scottish diligence statistics reveal that over 91% of debt enforcement – “diligence” – occurs following a summary warrant in respect of council tax debts. That’s over 240,000 cases every year.

Consider the CABx council tax debt figure of £3,420 – we know that £342 of that average arrears figure will be the 10% statutory surcharge added to council tax arrears. Why don’t we temporarily forego the surcharge during the cost of living crisis? That would save around £11m per annum.

In the 240,000 cases where bank and earnings arrestments are pursued against people annually, councils have to serve a “charge for payment” before they can instruct an arrestment. At the moment that has to be undertaken by sheriff officers who will add on a fee of £86.

Why not allow council officers to serve a charge for payment for council tax without imposing fees? That would remove £20.6m from being added on to household debts each year.

For many decades, council officers have been able to serve notices of proceedings in eviction cases for their tenants – why not extend the ability to do so by recorded delivery post or personal service for charges for payment?

Even when a charge for payment has been served, there are still various options including applying to the court for time to pay. Creditors have to serve a debt advice and information package but the current version by the Accountant in Bankruptcy is clunky – why not fix that?

Last December, The Robertson Trust found that one on 10 of the lowest income households were behind with council tax.

More than half had to cut back on food to save money. Some practical measures could help address that.