Councils increasingly calling in bailiffs to collect debts

27 Aug 15

The number of debt recovery cases sent by local councils to bailiffs has increased by one-sixth in just over two years, figures from the Money Advice Trust have revealed.

According to a report published by the trust today, councils in England and Wales instructed bailiffs to collect debts on 2.1 million occasions in 2014/15, a 16% increase from 1.84 million occasions identified in a similar survey for the 2012 calendar year.

Of the referrals in 2014/15, council tax debts accounted for 1.27 million cases, while parking-related debts were passed to bailiffs 715,000 times and overpayment of Housing Benefit overpayments on 40,000 occasions.

The freedom of information request found the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham was the heaviest user of bailiffs relative to its size, instructing them on 34,041 occasions during 2014/15 – equivalent to 43% of properties in the area. Seven other London boroughs are also in the top ten by percentage of properties, as well as Hart District Council in Hampshire, which disputes the figures, and Hyndburn Borough Council in Lancashire.

The research was conducted by the trust following concerns that localisation of council tax support to town halls in April 2013 was leading to an increase in referrals to bailiffs to pay these debts.

Localisation has meant some people who previously had their liability met in full were now billed for some of the tax, as the amount transferred from government to councils for the creation of new schemes was cut by 10%.

Publishing the figures, Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, which runs National Debtline, said more than half of councils are using bailiffs more frequently than two years ago.

“Something is seriously wrong here. On the front line of debt advice we know that sending the bailiffs in can deepen debt problems, rather than solve them – and it can also have a severe impact on the wellbeing of people who are often already in a vulnerable situation.”

She added that bailiff action was poor value for councils, as the research found that those who use bailiffs the most were actually less successful, on average, at collecting council tax arrears.

“Too many councils, however, are far too quick to escalate to bailiff action when better preventive work, earlier detection and support for people who fall behind are far better options for all concerned.”

However, Elson highlighted that 132 of 356 councils who responded to the information requests had reduced the number of referrals to bailiffs in the last two years.

“While there is much more work to do, their efforts to collect outstanding council tax and other debts without resorting to bailiffs shows that this can be done,” she added.

Responding to the figures, Claire Kober, chair of the Local Government Association’s resources board, said reduced funding for council tax support had left authorities needing to find £1bn by 2016 to protect the current level of discounts.

“Councils have a duty to their residents to collect taxes so important services like caring for the elderly, collecting bins and fixing roads are not affected. But we realise that times are tough and will always seek to take a sympathetic and constructive approach.”

Bailiffs were used, but only as a last resort, she added. “Before the situation reaches a stage where bailiffs are involved several letters will have been written, people will have been encouraged to apply for financial support, and efforts will be made to arrange new payment plans or to attach the debt to a salary.”

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