CASH-strapped Sandwell Council has denied that the £22 million it’s owed in unpaid bills has anything to do with the laying off of more than a hundred staff.

A report into the financial state of the council has revealed it’s owed tens of millions of pounds from council tax, business rates and invoices it has issued that have not yet been paid – with some even dating as far back to 2001.

But the council issued a strongly worded statement in advance of its cabinet meeting on Wednesday night where members were due discuss the report.

It shows that during 2017 to 2018 the authority increased the amount of money it is collecting in council tax and business rates, increasing its revenue as it deals with reductions in government grants.

But it also shows that during the same period, the council lost 131 staff at a cost of some £5 million in severance payments.

Now the council has flatly denied there is any link between job losses and the yet-to-be-paid money, which currently totals £22,603,000.

In a lengthy statement council leader, Cllr Steve Eling, said: “Sandwell Council is very good at recovering payments and debts. Our debts aren’t high when you compare to other councils – our collection rates for payments owed are in fact some of the best in the country.

“I entirely refute that the council is owed a massive amount in debt or that this has anything to do with the staffing reductions we’ve been forced to make due to austerity and huge government cuts to our budget.

“We collect 99 per cent of council tax which outstrips many neighbouring councils and other metropolitan borough councils around the country. We are regularly one of the country’s top-performing councils when it comes to collecting council tax

“In fact, our top performance in collecting payments is achieved despite the level of cuts imposed upon us.

“A substantial amount of these outstanding payments are still within 90 days of their invoice date and aren’t necessarily in arrears – the 31st of March is simply a cut-off point for accountancy purposes when people including the council return their accounts.

“The most volatile area of debt collection is on general debtors. Sometimes, these can be very large invoices to other public sector bodies and just one or two of these invoices being outstanding at March 31 makes a significant difference to the overall collection rate.

“In terms of council tax debt, there are historic council tax debts were people are paying very small amounts to us under attachment of earnings orders which will take many years for them to pay back.

“We only write off a debt once all other routes have been exhausted – which is why our accounts will show money owed going back some years. Those debts aren’t written off simply because we are still pursuing them.

“It’s important to note that we are one of only a few councils in the country who offer 100 per cent council discounts for people on very low incomes. Most councils have done away with these schemes.

“We owe a duty to people who do pay their council tax, rent and other bills on time to recoup money from people who don’t pay what they owe.

“We work hard to ensure that any administrative costs associated with council tax or business rates collection are kept to a minimum and we encourage customers to pay by direct debit as this is the most cost-effective payment method.

“Anyone struggling to pay an outstanding debt is encouraged to contact the council at the earliest opportunity to discuss payment.”