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Local authority use of bailiffs on the up

Written by: Emma Lunn
Councils’ use of bailiffs has increased by 7 per cent over the past two years, driven by parking debt referrals.

The Money Advice Trust calculated that more than 2.6 million debts were passed to bailiffs by local authorities in 2018/19.

The charity arrived at the figure after making a series of freedom of information requests to local authorities as part of its Stop the Knock 2019: An update on local authority debt collection practices in England and Wales research.

Bailiffs (known officially as enforcement agents) have the right to visit a property to remove and sell goods to repay certain debts, including council tax arrears, parking notices and other debts owed to councils.

Bailiff use “too high”

While the number of referrals to bailiffs for council tax debt remained stable from two years earlier, the Money Advice Trust says the overall number of 1.4 million remains too high and about half of councils are continuing to increase their use of bailiffs for council tax.

However, 51 percent of councils used fewer bailiffs than two years ago – and the charity has found a modest net improvement in debt collection practices in that time.

Three in 10 (30 per cent) callers to National Debtline, run by the Money Advice Trust, last year had council tax arrears – up from just 15 per cent in 2008.

The charity says many of these callers are subject to bailiff action, with 83 per cent of National Debtline callers who have experienced bailiff action reporting a negative impact on their wellbeing.

Parking debts were passed to bailiffs on nearly 1.1 million occasions – a 21 per cent like-for-like increase on the same period in 2016/17.

Calls to improve debt collection practices

The Money Advice Trust found that councils have made some limited progress on improving debt collection practices over the past two years, with the efforts of individual councils and campaigning from the debt advice sector beginning to have an impact.

The proportion of councils which have reduced their bailiff use over the past two years stands at 51 per cent – up from 38 per cent two years ago

However, the charity says the pace of improvement across the country is too slow. It wants councils to reduce their use of bailiffs and for the government to introduce independent bailiff regulation and an accompanying complaints mechanism.

Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, said: “Bailiff action is harmful to people in debt – and the fact that local authorities are passing 2.6 million debts a year to bailiffs should concern us all.

“Reforming the law around bailiff action itself is vital if we are to protect people from harm – and we are today renewing our call for the government to introduce independent bailiff regulation and a single complaints mechanism.

“Of equal importance, however, is reducing the number of debts that are being passed to bailiffs in the first place.  While we have seen a modest improvement in debt collection practices – and more councils reducing their use of bailiffs to collect council tax arrears – the pace of change is too slow.

“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.”

Response from the Local Government Association

Richard Watts, the chair of the Local Government Association’s resources board, 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.”

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