Local councils are increasingly resorting to using bailiffs as 2.3 million debts were passed on in 2016/17.
According to the Money Advice Trust - the charity that runs National Debtline - this represents a 14% increase in two years despite government guidance that councils should only use bailiffs as a last resort.
The charity found that between April 2016 and March 2017 council tax debt was passed on to bailiffs on 1.38 million occasions. Parking notices were given to bailiffs around 810,000 times, and there were around 50,000 referrals for housing benefit overpayments. While the council tax debt figures are up 10%, parking referrals were up a staggering 27% compared with 2014/15.
Meanwhile, 44% of councils still have no formal policy for handling residents in vulnerable situations, according to the charity.
Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, comments: "The growing use of bailiffs to collect debts by many local authorities is deeply troubling. Councils are under enormous financial pressure, and they of course need to recover what they are owed in order to fund vital services.
"However, many councils are far too quick to turn to bailiff action – which we know can seriously harm the wellbeing of residents who are often already in vulnerable situations. It can also push people even further into debt.
“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.
‘Many councils working hard to improve’
However, despite the overall increase in bailiff usage, two in five councils nationwide have reduced the number of times they were forced to resort to such measures.
The Money Advice Trust continues that it has found widespread examples of good practice, with nearly all (97%) of local councils now signposting information about free debt advice in their communications with residents.
The charity adds that 50 councils have now signed up to the Local Government Association joint ‘Council Tax Protocol’ with charity Citizens Advice. The protocol is designed to give practical help and advice to council residents in arrears, and to help prevent people from falling into debt in the first place. The protocol also gives guidelines for procedure to ensure enforcement agents act within the law. A further 38 councils are supposedly considering signing the protocol too.
Ms Elson adds: "The good news is that many councils are working hard to improve – and indeed, nearly four in 10 are actually using bailiffs less than they were two years ago. They should be congratulated for showing that this can be done.
"I hope that our new research, and the six steps we are laying out today, will help many more local authorities as they seek to improve the way they collect the debts they are owed.”