Concerns raised over bailiff visits

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Citizens Advice BureauWorking parents are being hounded by debt collectors and make up more than a fifth of requests for help dealing with bailiffs chasing payments, a charity has claimed.

The Citizens Advice charity said it dealt with 60,000 "bailiff problems" between April last year and March 2013. A third of the requests made by 38,262 people were asking for help with council tax arrears.

On Sunday it was revealed that the value of UK workers' wages has suffered one of the sharpest falls in the European Union, when adjusted for inflation.

Gillian Guy, Citizens Advice chief executive, said: "The prospect of a bailiff knocking at the door of a family home is terrifying for anyone, particularly parents with kids at home.
"Mums and dads don't want their children to know about their money worries, but when a person is standing on their doorstep demanding money, it is unavoidable and frightening for all of the family.

"The fact that working parents are being hounded by bailiffs for debts is a worrying reflection on today's living standards. Hard-working households are racking up debts just to get by.

"We're concerned that all too often debts, like unpaid council tax, are passed to bailiffs too quickly without recognising that the person may be struggling and need help like repayment plans.

"Creditors need to be identifying debt problems earlier and offering support, and never side-stepping responsibilities by handing it over to bailiffs."

The figures on working parents came from a pol l of 13,444 people who came to Citizens Advice between January and March with a "bailiff problem".

The charity said that of the requests for help with debt collectors, half were parents with dependent children, with 46% of those being from families with a working parent.

T here was also a north-south divide in the number of people seeking help.

The North East accounted for a sixth of all bailiff cases handled by Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) across England and Wales.

One in 25 of all problems handled by CABs in the region are to do with bailiffs, compared to just one in 100 in the South West.

The charity said more than half the people in the East Midlands who were being pursued by a bailiff were in a family.

It is the first time the charity has looked at figures surrounding working families.

Debt problems ranged from council tax arrears to unpaid parking fines, loans and credit cards.

Last month new laws were put in place to stop bailiffs entering homes at night or when only children are present.

The laws, which come into effect in April 2014, will also ban bailiffs from taking key household items, such as a cooker, microwave, refrigerator or washing machine.

And a notice period of seven days must be given to the debtor before bailiffs take control of the his or her goods, under the regulations unveiled by the Ministry of Justice.

House of Commons library figures released at the weekend showed that there has been a 5.5% reduction in average hourly wages since mid-2010, adjusted for inflation.

It means British workers have felt the squeeze more than those in countries which have been rocked by the eurozone crisis, including Spain, which saw a 3.3% drop over the same period, and Cyprus, where salaries fell by 3% in real terms.

Councillor Sharon Taylor, chairwoman of the Local Government Association's Finance Panel, said bailiffs were "the option of absolute last resort" for councils.

"It is inevitable that the Government's 10% cut in funding for council tax support will lead to more people falling behind on their council tax," she said.

"Councils will always try to work with people who are struggling to meet their council tax bills and are very keen to help through measures like flexible payment plans or assisting eligible people to apply for council tax support.

"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.

"Councils have a responsibility to all taxpayers to ensure that council tax is collected.

"This is important for ensuring essential services we all use, from picking up the bins and fixing the roads, to protecting the vulnerable and caring for the elderly, are properly funded.

"Usually more than 97% of council tax is collected in the year it is billed."

Local government minister Brandon Lewis said: "In June we introduced new guidance to tackle the use of heavy-handed bailiffs by councils to protect people from unfair treatment, making it clear that it is unacceptable for councils to employ burly bailiffs with heavy-handed tactics.

"The latest official statistics show that council tax arrears have actually fallen.

"This Government is funding a five-year council tax freeze that has already delivered a real terms cut in bills for hard-working families across the country."