The council is owed more than £700,000 in unpaid rent debts by social housing tenants in the borough.

Housing rent debts had decreased up to November 2018 but a Christmas surge saw the figure rise to £728,564.58 by January.

A report produced for the council noted: “December is traditionally a month that puts financial pressure on many residents.”

And Bob Watson, Lead Specialist for Finance at Wokingham Borough Council (WBC) said: “These people are our most vulnerable in the area. If it comes to feeding your children or paying your rent, I know what I would do.”

Housing rent debt represents 4.38 per cent of the total amount of money the council is owed, but WBC is aiming to reduce this to 2 per cent by the end of the 2019/2020 financial year.

The council starts the process of evicting tenants after they owe more than £2,500 and Mr Watson earlier claimed it can take up to 12 months for the process to be completed.

However, he also claimed this is not the council’s preferred method as it could mean the authority is then forced to spend more on provisions for residents needing housing support.

He said: “Other action can be a more expensive way of dealing with it. But we have to do this to show we are not a soft touch.”

Councillor Imogen Shepherd Du-Bey said in response: “Well clearly we are if you look at the figures”.

Money owed from former tenants also rose from March 2018 to November 2018 and despite the overall increase from November, Andrew Moulton, Head of Governance & Improvement Services at Wokingham Borough Council, told councillors: “There is an improvement in terms of current tenant arrears.

“The view on this at this point in time is that it moving in the right direction of travel, but there is still work to do.”

Members of the council’s audit committee asked what the department monitoring this debt is doing to reclaim the money.

Mr Watson said payment plans are being set up to help tenants pay their arrears, and the council has engaged two members of staff in the last year to begin telephoning tenants to ask them why they are not paying.

He claimed: “This has paid dividends and it has covered the cost of the staff.”

Cllr Chris Smith said: “This is something the audit committee needs to be keeping on top of.”

The councillor, who is chairman of the committee, also requested to see the data for the debt collected at the end of each month.

The issue was discussed at a meeting of the council’s audit committee on Wednesday, February 6.