Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The London Borough of Barnet - A Bad Place to do Business in the new world of Capita Ville

I am very disappointed by recent events in The London Borough of Barnet. They seem to indicate that Barnet Council has turned "anti small business". One would assume that a Conservative authority would look after its core voters, people running businesses large and small. I've not a Conservative voter, but I accept that the Conservatives are traditionally the party of business. Sadly in Barnet, they seem to be only interested in maintaining the profits of mega corporations. They have handed all of the councils functions to Capita PLC, generating huge profits for Capita shareholders. Now firstly there is nothing wrong with big profits for the shareholders of big companies. These pay most peoples pensions in the UK, so it is extremely naive to say such things are bad per se.

The trouble is that when the interests of such companies ride roughshod over everything else and there are no checks and controls, all of a sudden we have a very dangerous situation. Last year when Capita PLC took over running the Councils business, the first thing they did was bring in their own firm of bailiffs, called Equita, to enforce payment of fines & taxes on their behalf. The Council had other agreements, but Capita set these aside. The worry of myself and many others was that as Equita make a big profit on every order they enforce, there was a huge conflict of interest. Wheras Bailiffs are traditionally the last port of call, sent when there is no other option, for Capita, rigorous use of bailiffs becomes a nice little Earner.

What happened this week in Finchley High road was amicrocosm of all that is wrong with the business environement Capita have created. Local cafe owner Helen Michael had an extremely difficult time between August 2012 and August 2013. Firstly her mum got seriously ill. Then former Councillor Brian Coleman beat her outside her shop. To compound matters, Coleman lied about this and pretended He was the victim. This went on for six months, until he was eventaully exposed as a complete liar and a violent thug in court, courtesy of the CCTV footage.

Then Helen's mum passed away. Dealing with the stress of all this lead to her getting behind on her rates. She ran up debts on her rates of £8,000. When she got her head together, she started to pay off the debt. Barnet Council got a court order, but as Helen was paying the debt, she assumed the matter had gone away. In August the debt was down to £1800. The council apparently started chaing her. By September the debt was down to £800. Then out of the blue, Equita turned up at her cafe, despite 90% of the debt in a year. It was only the lack of paperwork that prevented them from taking her coffe machine. Given it was clear she was paying, why did the Council call in the Capita?Equita bailiffs just before the debt was cleared. Is this business friendly.

The Council issued the following statement

“Barnet Council’s business rates department has been in regular correspondence for over 12 months with Ms Michael concerning her outstanding business rates for 2013/14. Her initial bill was sent in March 2013, a reminder was sent on 22nd April 2013, a final notice on 18th June 2013 and a court summons issued on 23rd July 2013.

In August 2013 Ms Michael wrote to us offering monthly payment plan, which wasn’t deemed to be an acceptable rate of payment and on 13th August 2013 the Magistrates’ Court granted the council a liability order for £8,114. Ms Michael increased her payments after the liability order was issued.

However after several missed payments the council handed the matter to its Enforcement Agents Equita. On 8th August 2014 Equita issued Ms Michael with a letter of enforcement for £2,032.50 plus a compliance fee of £75.00.

Ms Michael wrote back to the council on 15th August 2014 in response to this letter of enforcement. At the time of the Enforcement Agent’s visit Ms Michael had paid off some more of the outstanding debt, but was still in arrears for last year’s business rates.

Business rates are set by central government and a proportion is retained by the council and the GLA. The council is responsible for their collection and enforcement on behalf of the government, and the GLA. The council’s four year collection rate for business rates is 98.8%. The council tax collection rate is 98.1%.

Enforcement Agents follow a strict code of conduct and issue fixed fees in line with Ministry of Justice rules. Barnet uses Enforcement Agents to recover unpaid Business Rates and Council Tax, and to date has recovered £3.6m of unpaid tax with this method.”
So the question is this. Were the bailiffs called in as a last resort? Was it necessary? We believe it wasn't and the action wasn't proportional. Was Helen singled out for anti council activities or will they do this to all of us, if we make one small slip with our rates payments? Either way, it is plain wrong

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