The use of bailiffs to collect council tax is continuing to increase in about half of all local authority areas in England and Wales, despite calls by anti-poverty charities for their use to be curtailed.
There were more than 1.4m referrals to bailiffs for the collection of council tax last year, according to figures gathered by the Money Advice Trust charity (MAT), which has been pressing councils to adopt protocols aimed at protecting vulnerable people.
Across the board, the use of bailiffs to collect debts owed to local authorities in England and Wales has risen by 7% in two years, driven by a surge in the use of bailiffs to collect parking debts.
However, the collection of council tax remains a particularly sensitive area: 30% of callers to a debt advice service run by the MAT last year had council tax arrears – up from 15% in 2008 – while 83% of callers who had experienced action by bailiffs reported a negative impact on their wellbeing.
Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of MAT, said: “Bailiff action is harmful to people in debt – and the fact that local authorities are passing 2.6m 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.”
The trust’s report – the latest in its Stop the Knock campaign, based on freedom of information responses from 367 local authorities – found there had been modest improvements in practices by local authorities.
The proportion of local authorities that had reduced their bailiff use during the last two years stood at 51%, up from 38% two years ago.
Sixty-four councils have signed up to the Citizens Advice/LGA council tax protocol – up from 50 two years ago. A further 23 councils are considering signing up the protocol which, for example, obliges local authorities to give careful consideration before passing debts to enforcement agencies where potentially vulnerable household are involved.
Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’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.”