September 10, 2019 11:01:00 PM
Local councils across England and Wales sent 2.6 million debts to bailiffs in 2018-19, according to analysis by a charity.
The Money Advice Trust (MAT), which runs National Debtline and Business Debtline, made the findings after receiving freedom of information (FOI) responses from 367 local authorities.
On a like-for-like basis, the use of bailiffs to collect debts has increased by 7% compared with 2016-17, the charity said – with parking debts behind the increase.
Bailiffs, also known as enforcement agents, can visit a property to remove and sell goods to repay certain debts, including council tax arrears, parking notices and other debts owed to councils.
The MAT’s new figures show parking debts were passed to bailiffs on nearly 1.1 million occasions – a 21% like-for-like increase on the same period in 2016-17.
The number of council tax debts passed to bailiffs remained stable, but remains high at more than 1.4 million referrals in 2018-19, the MAT said.
The charity said three in 10 (30%) callers to its National Debtline last year had council tax arrears – up from just 15% in 2008.
Many of these callers are subject to bailiff action, with 83% of National Debtline callers who have experienced bailiff action surveyed reporting a negative impact on their wellbeing.
The MAT said it has found evidence that more councils are adopting best practice on affordability and vulnerability.
It found 64 councils have now signed up to the Citizens Advice/LGA (Local Government Association) council tax protocol – up from 50 two years ago. A further 23 councils said they are considering doing this.
Joanna Elson, chief executive of the MAT, said: “Bailiff action should only ever be used as a last resort, and can be avoided by early intervention, making sure residents get the free debt advice they need, and agreeing repayment arrangements that are affordable and sustainable.
“We will continue to work constructively with councils to help them reduce their bailiff use – and to impress on central Government the urgent need for the national policy changes that are required to quicken the pace of change.”
Chair of the LGA’s resources board Richard Watts said: “Councils have a duty to their residents to collect taxes, which play a vital role in funding important services that people rely on.
“However, we realise that times are tough and councils do their best to protect those affected the most, whether through introducing hardships funds or taking a sympathetic and constructive approach to the way we collect unpaid tax.
“We have worked with Citizens Advice on a protocol for recovering debts, which as this report demonstrates is having a positive effect.
“It includes the need for fair collection and enforcement policies and the ability for councils to take back cases involving vulnerable families.
“Anyone having trouble paying their council bills should get in touch with their local authority for financial help and advice.”