Speaking at the Tackling Debt Owed to Government conference, hosted by CSW publisher Dods, Maude said that up to £8bn of uncollected debt is written off by the government every year, and that “avoiding the subject altogether has left us with disjointed, inefficient, ineffective approaches to managing and collecting debt.”
“We are often handicapped by our outdated, cautious approaches to data sharing,” he added, stating that the government will therefore “be pursuing legislation that will aim to create one gateway that will give a legal basis for data sharing between departments where there is a sufficiently strong case.”
At present, there are 86 separate provisions for sharing information between certain public sector organisations. Maude said the new legislation will make the collection of £1.7bn of debt owed to HMRC, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the HM Courts and Tribunals Service easier by allowing departments to share data on individuals with multiple debts.
Asked about the timescale, Maude told CSW: “The legislation will not be very soon,” adding that “it should be in this Parliament, with any luck.” He added: “I can’t commit because I don’t control the government’s legislative programme.”
However, Maude also told CSW that action would not have to wait for legislation, and cited a pilot scheme to join up debt collection between HMRC and the DWP as an example of good cross-departmental working. Maude told the conference: “We want to see whether debtors themselves respond to a single approach positively.”
The Cabinet Office has also launched new guidelines for civil servants seeking to recoup money owed to government departments, to help provide the right support to debtors who are in genuine hardship.
Asked whether it’s fair to pursue people who owe debt to government in such difficult economic times, Maude told CSW: “If they are people who genuinely can’t pay, then they need to be supported in a coordinated way.” He cited a case where a single mother was being pursued by 22 different parts of government separately. “That’s no way to treat people who are genuinely hard up and can’t pay. We need to do that in a much more consistent way.”
“At the same time, where we establish that people can pay, let’s do it once and pursue them once and not repeatedly,” he added.
Maude also announced that departments will have to publish figures on uncollected debt in their Quarterly Data Summaries.
For more see our debt round table coverage