THE use of bailiffs to collect debts has risen by 7 per cent at councils in England and Wales in the past two years.
The hike was driven by a 21 per cent surge in unpaid parking fines passed to bailiffs, new research has found.
In total, councils handed over more than 2.6million debts to bailiffs in 2018/19 according to Freedom of Information requests by the Money Advice Trust.
Of these, roughly 1.1million were for unpaid parking fines, 1.4million for council tax debts, while housing benefit overpayments and business rates totalled almost 40,000 and 80,000, respectively.
The charity said the referrals for council tax debts remained roughly the same as in 2016/17, compared to a 10 per cent hike in the previous two-year period.
Yet around half of the 367 councils it asked have increased their use of bailiffs, while 51 percent used fewer bailiffs than two years ago.
Bailiffs: your rights
IT can be extremely distressing to have a bailiff at your front door, but you have rights and shouldn't be bullied. Here's what you need to know:
When bailiffs can't enter your home:
- by force, for example by pushing past you (unless in the below scenario as a last resort)
- if only children under 16 or vulnerable people (with disabilities, for example) are present
- between 9pm and 6am
- through anything except the door
When bailiffs can enter your home:
- Bailiffs are allowed to force their way into your home to collect unpaid criminal fines, income tax or stamp duty, but only as a last resort.
If you do not let a bailiff in or agree to pay them:
- they could take things from outside your home, for example your car
- you could end up owing even more money
If you do let a bailiff in but do not pay them they may take some of your belongings.
They could sell the items to pay debts and cover their fees.
Before you let a bailiff take your things or you pay them, you should ask to see a proof of their identity, which company they're from, a contact number as well as a breakdown of the amount you owe.
You don't have to let them into your home.
Instead, you can ask them to put the paperwork through the letterbox or show it at a window, for example.
For tips on how to pay a bailiff – check out our guide.
It comes as roughly 30 per cent of Brits who call the National Debtline have council tax arrears, up from 15 per cent in 2008, and many of them are subject to bailiff action.
The Money Advice Trust has now issued a renewed call for the government to introduce an independent regulator.
Bailiff firms are currently self-regulated, and in April a group of MPs said the regulator should have the power to ban companies from operating or issue fines.
It followed another warning by charities in November last year that some debt collectors are pushing the limits of the law, such as forcing entry to a home or removing goods needed for work.
Joanna Elson chief executive of the Money Advice Trust said: "Bailiff action is harmful to people in debt – and the fact that local authorities are passing 2.6million 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.
"Of equal importance, however, is reducing the number of debts that are being passed to bailiffs in the first place.
"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.
How to get debt advice for free
There are lots of groups who can help you with your problem debts.
- Citizens Advice – 0808 800 9060
- StepChange – 0800 138 1111
- National Debtline – 0808 808 4000
You can also find information about Debt Management Plans (DMP) and Individual Voluntary Arrangements (IVA) on the Money Advice Service website and on the Government's .Gov.uk site.
Speak to one of these organisations – don't be tempted to use a claims managment firm that will claim it can write-off lots of your debts in return for a large up-front fee.
Richard Watts of the Local Government Association's Resources Board said councils have a duty to collect taxes to pay for services their residents rely on.
He added: "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.
"We have worked with Citizens Advice on a protocol for recovering debts.
"It includes the need for fair collection and enforcement policies and the ability for councils to take back cases involving vulnerable families."
Brits who are struggling to pay council bills should contact their council for financial help and advice, he added.
Last year, an opera singer hit out at bailiffs after her cancer-hit dad took his own life following threats that they'd repossess his home over a £70,000 debt.
A bailiff from Channel 5's Can't Pay? We'll Take It Away! also rifled through an innocent couple's drawers after he was given the wrong address.
Meanwhile, one businessman paid £1,200 bailiffs fine with a car boot full of 1p coins.
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