Step 5: Tackling priority debts first

Some debts are more important than others: these are priority debts. You must deal with these debts first. A list of priority debts is given in the table below, together with a summary of the possible outcome if you fail to pay what is due.

Type of debt Possible outcome against you
Mortgage arrears (including second mortgage and secured loans) Repossession of your home
Rent arrears Eviction from your home
Gas and electricity Supply disconnection
Council tax Deduction from wages or certain benefits, bailiff action imprisonment
Income Tax/ National Insurance and VAT arrears Bailiff action, bankruptcy
Magistrates court fines Imprisonment
Arrears of child support Deductions from wages and certain benefits, bailiff action, imprisonment.
TV licence Magistrates' fine, bailiff action. Imprisonment
Hire purchase or conditional sale Repossession of the goods

This is not an exhaustive list. Other debts may be considered a priority depending on your circumstances. For instance, money owed to the Social Fund or a benefit overpayment is classed as a priority creditor, if you are in receipt of benefits, as deductions can be made at source. Another example is a loan from an employer. This could be because it is deducted at source, or could simply be that not repaying the loan could put your job at risk.

List your priority creditors on your budget sheet with the outstanding balances.

It is never too early or too late to contact your creditors. If you have only missed one payment, or you are in the last stages of court action, you should still contact your creditors.

Once you have worked out your personal budget, contact your priority creditors, by either writing, telephoning or face to face. Make sure you have all the details of your account and your budget sheet to hand. Explain that you are having financial difficulties, you have completed a personal budget sheet and you have carefully worked out your position, using this online guide. Say that you wish to come to an arrangement to repay the money you owe. If you have other priority creditors, it is worth pointing this out.

If you have special reasons for going into arrears, for example, you were made redundant, you are ill or disabled, or you recently separated from your partner, it is worth mentioning this to your creditors. This is particularly important if your financial position is likely to change for the better in the near future, as your case may be viewed more sympathetically.

Your creditors will try to negotiate different arrangements, depending on the type of debt, their legal powers and your past payment record. If you have broken arrangements in the past, it may be more difficult to get what you want. However, don’t be put off. If the first person you speak to is unhelpful – be persistent and ask to speak to their supervisor or manager.

How much should you offer?

All priority creditors will want to know that you can meet your current liabilities, such as the cost of fuel you are using now, your regular rent payments, or this year’s Council Tax, plus something off your arrears.

Do not make an offer or accept an arrangement which you can’t afford. A small but regular payment off your arrears is better than no payment at all or one that you can’t keep up.

If you feel you are not getting anywhere with your creditor, politely, but firmly say you cannot agree to pay them more than you can afford, you will seek advice and contact them again.

More than one priority creditor?

If you have more than one priority creditor, begin negotiating with the debt which is nearest its final sanction. For example, if you are threatened with disconnection of fuel within 7 days and you have received your first warning regarding rent arrears, deal with the fuel debt first. When agreement is reached, move on to the priority debt that is second in line and so on. Each time, some disposable income (money for creditors) will have to be retained for the remaining priority debts.

If, despite your best efforts, you cannot come to an arrangement with your priority creditors, and you are a Southampton City Council tenant, contact us for advice. If you are not a council tenant, contact one of the debt advice services in Southampton.

The remainder of this section explains in more detail how to cope with different priority debts.

Rent arrears

If you pay rent to the Council

(If you pay rent to a Private Landlord or Housing Association see below).

The Council can and do evict people from their homes for failing to pay their rent. They do, however, have to go to court first. Resolving the situation before you are taken to court, will mean avoiding additional court costs and unnecessary worry.

Note: If you hold an introductory tenancy normal rules do not apply contact us for advice.

Help with paying your rent

If you are on a low income –regardless of whether you are working, you may be entitled to some Universal Credit, to help with your rent payments.

You can make a claim online for Universal Credit.  Any entitlement will be paid directly into your bank account and you will be expected to pay it into your rent account.

Even if you are entitled to full Universal Credit, this may not cover the entire rent if you have a heating charge. You will need to make up any difference.

Find out more about Universal Credit

If you and your partner have reached state pension age or you live in supported accommodation you may be able to claim Housing Benefit.

Find out more about Housing Benefit

Any entitlement will be paid to your rent account.

Even if you receive full Housing Benefit, this may not cover the whole cost of your rent if you have a heating charge or if you are having an overpayment deducted. You will need to make up any difference.

Repaying your arrears

If you are behind with your rent payments, speak to your caseworker and show him/her your personal budget sheet. Offer to repay the rent arrears at an amount you can afford – even if it appears quite a small amount – and start paying immediately. It is very important that you keep paying the full rent plus the amount you agreed to pay off the arrears.

If you pay rent to a private landlord or Housing Association

What type of tenancy do you have?

There are several different types of tenancy and each type gives you different rights. The type of tenancy you have depends on who your landlord is and when you started renting your home. It is very important to know about your tenancy agreement, as this affects your rights to stay in your home.

Helping with your rent

If you are of working age and on a low income you may be able to claim Universal Credit to get help with your rent costs.

Find out more about Universal Credit

If you and your partner have reached state pension age or you are living in supported accommodation you may be able to claim Housing Benefit to help with your rent costs.

Find out more about Housing Benefit

Repaying your arrears

You should try to come to an arrangement with your landlord to pay your full rent, plus something towards your arrears.

If your landlord takes you to court

Remember that you cannot be evicted without a court order. Contact Homelessness Advice if your landlord won’t accept your offer to repay rent arrears.

If you are an assured shorthold tenant and your landlord starts court action because your tenancy comes to an end seek advice.

If your landlord threatens to throw you out without going to court or harasses you to make you leave he/she may be acting illegally – contact Homelessness Advice.

Getting rehoused

Many people believe that the Council must re-house people who are evicted or homeless. This is not true! Only in certain circumstances do homeless people have a right to be re-housed.

If you think that eventually you may lose your home by being evicted contact Homelessness Advice. It is a good idea to do this as soon as possible – don’t wait until you are actually homeless before seeking advice.

Mortgage arrears

What sort of mortgage do you have?

You may have both first and second mortgages. The first mortgage is the loan you took out to buy your home. The second mortgage, also known as a secured loan, second charge or sometimes a consolidation loan, is a separate loan which is secured on your home.

Check all your loan agreements to see if they are ‘secured’ on your home. If they are secured, treat them as a priority debt because your home is at risk if your do not keep up with the payments.

Further information on how to deal with mortgage arrears can be found at Mortgage debt advice or Shelter

Contact your lender if you have a problem

It is really important that you contact your lender if you are in arrears or are struggling to pay your mortgage. You may not be in arrears yet, or your lender may have started court action. Whatever the situation, do not delay contacting your lenders. Get in touch as soon as possible by writing, phoning or making an appointment to see someone.

Help towards paying your mortgage

Mortgage payment protection insurance - check to see if you have been paying any form or mortgage protection. If so, you should make a claim to see if you are eligible for a payout. You may be able to get help with the interest on your mortgage payments if you are receiving certain income-related benefits. 

For more information about help with your mortgage visit: GOV.UK - Support for Mortgage Interest

Arranging to clear the arrears

The Government have issued guidelines to mortgage lenders who are encouraged to work with their borrowers and explore other options first. Repossession should be the last resort. 

If you are able to pay your monthly payment but have arrears you will need to make arrangements to pay something towards clearing them. But if you cannot do this there may be other options you can consider with your lender that are discussed later. 

If you aren’t able to pay your full current monthly payment you will then need to offer a gesture payment. Paying something, no matter how small it is, is better than ignoring the problem. It demonstrates a willingness to deal with the matter. The lender will normally ask for the arrears to be cleared in 12 to 24 months, but longer periods can be agreed in some circumstances. If you cannot come to an agreement with the lender, continue to pay the amount that you have offered anyway.

Don't be tempted to take out an extra loan to clear your arrears. These are often very expensive and could put your home at greater risk.

Explain why you can’t pay the amount they are asking for, particularly if there are extenuating circumstances, such as illness, relationship break down or unemployment.

Lenders are encouraged to follow a set of guidelines called the mortgage pre-action protocol and work with their borrower to resolve their arrears. It is not acceptable for your lender to ignore your request for help and seek possession.

If you have a second mortgage or other loan secured on your home, consider asking your mortgage provider to consolidate. Second mortgages tend to be at a higher interest rate than first mortgages and often run for a shorter period. If you are in this position, it may be worth asking your lender if they will consider offering you a remortgage, to include both the loans. Payments on this new mortgage should be lower than the two payments combined.

What if I can't afford my mortgage?

Handing back the keys - this may not be a good idea. If you give your home back to your lenders, this does not mean you can stop paying. You have to pay your mortgage until your lender sells your house. This can take several months. If they sell the property for less than your mortgage loan you will still have to pay back any outstanding balance plus any interest

If you give up your home, the council may not be able to re-house you, as you may be classed as 'intentionally homeless'.

Selling your home

Sometimes, as a last resort, you may consider selling your home. If you decide to do this, you need to give serious consideration to where you will live. 

  • Could you ‘trade down’ to a smaller property?
  • As with handing back the keys, your local authority is unlikely to re-house you if you sell your home.
  • Look at private rented
  • Consider moving in with family members for the short term.

What should I do if the property is not worth enough to clear the outstanding mortgage and other secured loans?

If you sell your home, or your lender repossesses and sells it, you may find that the proceeds from the sale are not enough to cover the outstanding mortgage or other secured loans, leaving you an outstanding debt. Unless you are buying another home, this debt should be treated as a credit debt.

Gas and Electricity

Gas and electricity companies can disconnect your fuel supply if you don’t pay them. No court is involved in this decision. Therefore, it is important that you contact your supplier as soon as you realise you are going to have difficulties paying.

Check liability for the bill

If you are not the person named on the bill – for example if it is in the name of someone that no longer lives at your address – you may not be liable for the arrears up to the date they left. You should argue this with your energy supplier.

Avoiding disconnection

Contact the company and, using your personal budget sheet, offer them an amount to cover the fuel you are currently using, plus something to repay the arrears.

Instalments - you could arrange to pay the gas or electricity bill by weekly or monthly instalments before the next bill arrives.

Budget plans - the fuel company works out how much fuel you use over the whole year and you pay a fixed amount every week, every two weeks or every month. You can spread any unpaid bills over the whole year and include it in the budget plan. You can usually arrange to make payments either by direct debit or with a payment card at a PayPoint.

Prepayment meter - this is a way of paying for your gas and electricity as you use it, plus an amount towards your arrears, through a key or a card. There are drawbacks to having a prepayment meter. Your standing charge may be a little higher, plus if you are unable to get to a PayPoint or can not afford to charge your key, you will be without gas or electricity. If you have a smart meter in pre-payment setting you can top up online or through an app on your mobile phone. 

Direct payments from Benefits - if you get certain income-related benefits you may be able to arrange a deduction from your benefit which will be paid direct to your fuel supplier. This is known as Fuel Direct. Acceptance on to this scheme will depend on how much you owe your fuel supplier and what other deductions you are having taken from your benefit.

Council Tax

Should you be paying less Council Tax?

Your Council Tax bill could be reduced if you are entitled to a discount or Council Tax Reduction.

Find out more about Council Tax discounts and exemptions

Find out more about Council Tax Reduction

Contacting the council

You can contact the Council Tax team on 023 8083 3009. You should make contact as soon as you fall into arrears, do not wait until you receive court papers.

Make an offer of payment based on your personal budget sheet to cover the current year’s bill, plus something off the arrears.

The Council will not usually agree to an arrangement unless it will clear the balance within the current financial year.

What happens if you don't pay or can't come to an agreement?

If you can’t come to a payment agreement or don’t stick to an agreement you have made, the Council will seek a ‘Liability Order’ from the court.

You will know if the Council are seeking a Liability Order because you will receive a Court Summons. This is an official looking letter, telling you when the court will look at your case, the total amount you owe the Council and how much this action is going to cost you. You do not have to attend this hearing. In fact, it is only really advisable to attend this particular type of hearing, if you dispute the fact that you owe the Council Tax in the first place, for example, you have moved house and pay your bill to another authority.

The council requests more information

Once a Liability Order is obtained, the Council will send you a letter requesting you provide information about your circumstances and an offer of repayment. You are required to respond to this letter within 14 days.

This information is then used to work out the best method of recovering the money you owe. The Council may accept the offer you make, but they could also apply to have deductions made directly form your wages or benefits.

It is a good idea to provide the Council with as much information about your situation as possible. Enclose a copy of your budget sheet.

How the council can make you pay

The Liability order gives the Council the power to take further steps to make you pay. If you are still not making regular payments to clear your arrears, the Council will probably take one of the following measures:

Attachment of earnings order - if you are employed, the Council can order your employer to take an amount from your wages to pay your Council Tax.

The amount deducted is a percentage of your earnings set by law and ranges from 3% to 50% depending on your level of earnings.

Direct deductions - from certain income-related benefits - if you or your partner are receiving income-related benefits the Council can apply for a deduction from your benefit to pay your arrears.

Bailiffs - the Council can ask bailiffs to visit your home and take goods, which may be sold to pay off your debt. See Step 7 - Dealing with bailiffs

Can you be sent to prison?

If the Council have used one or more of the above recovery methods and your Council Tax has still not been paid in full, or you promised to pay off your arrears by regular instalments and you have broken that agreement, they may apply to the Magistrates Court for a ‘Committal Hearing’. The Court could then make an order for you to be sent to prison.

You will know this is happening if you receive a letter which says you are summonsed to appear before the Magistrates and warning that if you fail to appear, a warrant for your arrest could be issued.

The Court should not send you to prison if you can show that you cannot afford to pay the arrears all at once, but have tried and are willing to make regular payments. 

In exceptional circumstances, the Court may order your council tax arrears to be written off. But normally, they will order you to pay an amount each month until the debt is cleared. If you do not pay this amount regularly, the Court may send you to prison.

Income Tax/ National Insurance and VAT arrears

If you are in arrears of Tax, National Insurance or VAT you should contact HM Customs and Revenue to make an arrangement.

If you don't pay your income tax, or don't come to an arrangement with HMRC to pay off the arrears, the consequences could be very serious. If you pay tax under PAYE, in many cases HMRC will try to collect the debt by an adjustment to your tax code.

They also have the power to start bankruptcy proceedings or take action in the County Court or Magistrates Court. If you don’t stick to an arrangement set by the Magistrates Court you could be sent to prison.

HMRC may come to your home to take away your belongings and sell them to raise money for the arrears. HMRC officers are not allowed to force their way into your home but if they can't get in without force, they may apply to the magistrates' court for a warrant which will allow them to break in. This is very unusual.

Magistrates' court fines

The Magistrates’ Court may order you to pay a fine, for example for a driving offence, for not having a TV licence or for some other offence. You must treat a Magistrates’ Court fine as a priority debt, because there could be serious consequences if you do not pay. The Court has the power to:

  • Issue a distress warrant and instruct private bailiffs
  • Deduct payment from your wages or benefits
  • Clamp your vehicle and sell it
  • Send you to prison

The Court should take your financial circumstances into account when they decide the instalments for paying your fine. You can be fined if you do not give the Court details of your income and outgoings when ordered to do so.

The Court can make deductions from your wages or from certain income-related benefits, either when they set the fine or if you fall behind with payments. You must contact the Court if you can't afford to pay the amount the Court sets or you can't pay because your circumstances have changed. They may be able to lower the amount. If you have to go to a court hearing, take a copy of your personal budget sheet with you.

Child Support arrears

You can be ordered to pay maintenance either by the Court, as part of a separation or divorce process, or by the Child Maintenance Service.

Maintenance through the court

If the Court has ordered you to make regular payments, you can apply to reduce the payments if you can't afford them.

If you do not pay, the Court can order you to go to a hearing to explain why you have not paid. They can give you more time to pay and in rare circumstances, they can write off arrears.

If the Court decides that you are deliberately not paying, they may try to:

  • Instruct bailiffs to seize goods
  • Take payments direct from your wages
  • Order you to be sent to prison.

Maintenance through the Child Maintenance Service

The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) can decide what maintenance you should pay and then collect it. They will decide the amount by using a set formula. If you do not pay, the CMS can collect directly from your wages or benefit payments.

If they cannot collect in this way, they can ask the Magistrates Court to issue a Liability Order. When this happens, they may try to:

  • Use bailiffs to seize goods
  • Get a legal charge on your property (if you are a home owner)
  • Seize money from your bank account
  • Ask the court to send you to prison for up to six weeks (but only if the court thinks you are deliberately not paying)
  • Ask the court to take away your driving licence for up to two years.

TV Licence

It is a legal requirement to have a TV Licence. You must budget for this, even if you do not currently have a licence. For options on how to pay for your TV Licence, including a weekly cash payment plan.

Further information can be found at TV Licensing.

Hire purchase or Conditional sale

If you have purchased an item under a Hire Purchase (HP) or Conditional Sale agreement and the item is vital, it may be regarded as a priority debt. For example you may have purchased a car under a finance agreement and need the car in order to keep your job. You would need to treat this debt as a priority and keep up with the payments, otherwise the item could be repossessed. If you have paid less than a third of the total price, the creditor does not have to go to court to get possession.

First read your credit agreement; if it states it is a HP or Conditional Sale agreement, consider your options carefully. You could try to negotiate reduced instalments, as repossession, although threatened, may prove an unattractive option for the creditor. You may try to re-negotiate other debts to find the money to pay the instalments. If you are unable to come to an agreement, you may have to allow the item to be repossessed.

Benefit overpayments and Social Fund Loans

Benefits paid by The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)

If you owe money to the DWP because, either you have previously taken out a Budgeting Loan from the Social Fund, or you have received an overpayment of benefit, the DWP can make deductions from your benefit to pay this money back.

Social Fund loans are normally, only deducted from income-related benefits however, deductions for an overpayment can be made from a range of DWP benefits.

If deductions are causing you hardship, you should contact the DWP in writing, asking for deductions to be reduced. Always enclose a copy of your budget sheet. If you have other priority creditors, it is important to explain this.
If you are no longer in receipt of benefits, then a debt to the DWP is treated as a non-priority debt. (See Step 6 ‘More debts - credit or non priority debts’.

Housing Benefit overpayment

If you are overpaid Housing Benefit, your Local Authority will usually recover the money you owe them by making deductions from your ongoing benefit. This will mean that even if you are entitled to maximum Housing Benefit, your rent will not be completely covered, due to these deductions. If you do not make up the shortfall caused by the deductions, you will end up with rent arrears.

If the overpayment deductions are causing hardship, you should contact Housing Benefit ask for the deduction to be reduced.


Before you fill in this form

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Income and expenses form

If you are no longer in receipt of Housing Benefit, the debt can be recovered from your Universal Credit payments.

If you are no longer in receipt of benefits the debt can be treated as a non-priority debt.

Overpayment of Tax Credits

If you have been overpaid Child Tax Credit or Working Tax Credit, HMRC can recover the money owed to them from your ongoing award. If deductions are causing you hardship contact HMRC and explain your difficulties, enclose a copy of your budget sheet.

Find out more about Tax Credit Overpayments

Find out more about reducing repayments

Appealing an overpayment decision

If you have been notified about an overpayment of benefit or tax credits that you do not agree with, you may be able to appeal the decision.

How much is left over?

Once you have negotiated with all of your priority creditors, write down the weekly or monthly payments next to the creditors on your budget sheet, then add these payments together and insert the total figure.

To find out how much you have left to offer to non-priority creditors, you need to add the ‘total expenses’ figure to the ‘total priority creditors’ figure, then deduct this from ‘total income’.

Contact us:

For further advice, you can contact our Welfare Rights and Money Advice team.