There has been a sharp rise in the number of bailiffs called out by local authorities to collect debts despite claims such tactics are less effective in recovering funds.
The Money Advice Trust said councils in England and Wales instructed bailiffs, or "enforcement agents", to collect debts on 2.1 million occasions last year, compared to 1.8 million the year before – an increase of 16%.
Council tax debts were by far the biggest problem, with enforcement agents called out on 1.27 million occasions to collect on such arrears. Parking related debt was the other major contributor, triggering 715,000 call-outs.
Crucially, the Money Advice Trust noted that the councils using bailiffs the most were also found to have had less success in collecting council tax arrears.
The London Borough of Barking & Dagenham was the heaviest user of enforcement agents relative to its size, instructing them on 34,041 occasions – equivalent to 43% of properties in the area.
At the other end of the scale, only three councils – Charnwood, Wyre and the Isles of Scilly – were found to have used no bailiffs at all during the year
The five councils with the highest bailiff referrals as a percentage of total properties, according to Money Advice Trust:
- London Borough of Barking & Dagenham - 43.47%
- Westminster City Council - 33.31%
- Hyndburn Borough Council - 42%
- London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham - 26.57%
- London Borough of Haringey - 25.12%
Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline, said: "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.
"Bailiff action is not only harmful to those in arrears – it is also a poor deal for the council taxpayer.
"Our research shows that those local authorities that use bailiffs the most are actually less successful, on average, at collecting council tax arrears. This is a lose-lose situation."
Responding to the Money Advice Trust's report, Claire Kober, chair of the Local Government Association's resources board, said: "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 are only ever used as a last resort by councils.
"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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