How the cost of paying up is sending bailiffs’ diaries wild

New figures obtained under a Freedom of Information request by the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline, revealed that local authorities in England and Wales referred debts to bailiffs on 1.8 million occasions in the financial year 2014-15 - six referrals every minute.
New figures obtained under a Freedom of Information request by the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline, revealed that local authorities in England and Wales referred debts to bailiffs on 1.8 million occasions in the financial year 2014-15 - six referrals every minute.
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In the last financial year of 2014-15, South Holland District Council was forced to write off debts totalling nearly £280,000.

Unpaid council tax accounted for nearly £104,000 of the write off, with the next highest bill outstanding being just over £69,000 worth of never-to-be-recovered business rates.

Coun Peter Coupland, portfolio holder for finance at South Holland District Council.

Coun Peter Coupland, portfolio holder for finance at South Holland District Council.

In a report presented to district council cabinet members in July, Coun Peter Coupland said: “The need to write off debt usually arises due to the debtor being untraceable, insolvent, no longer trading and without assets or deceased, with insufficent funds in the estate.

“Where possible, all methods of recovery are pursued before making the decision to write off, including internal recovery action, use of debt collection agents, external tracing agents and procedures through the courts.”

But it is the use of another “method of recovery” - enforcement agents or bailiffs - that has come under the microscope of the Money Advice Trust, the charity responsible for National Debtline which saw calls to its advisors soar by 140 per cent between 2007 and 2014.

Figures obtained by the charity under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request revealed that in the financial year 2014-15, local authorities in England and Wales turned over debt to bailiffs on 1.8 million occasions, equal to the population of West Yorkshire, Barcelona, Spain, and Vienna, Austria.

Coun Aaron Spencer, finance portfolio holder at Boston Borough Council.

Coun Aaron Spencer, finance portfolio holder at Boston Borough Council.

Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, said: “Two years ago, our original research on local authority bailiff use led to widespread calls for councils to improve their debt collection practices.

“We had hoped the situation would have improved since then but instead, more than half of councils are using bailiffs even more than before to collect unpaid debts.

“Something is seriously wrong here and we know that sending the bailiffs in can deepen debt problems, rather than solve them.

“It can also have a severe impact on the wellbeing of people who are often already in a vulnerable situation.”

Lisa Barwell, chief officer for South Holland Citizens Advice Bureau,  Spalding.  Photo by Tim Wilson.

Lisa Barwell, chief officer for South Holland Citizens Advice Bureau, Spalding. Photo by Tim Wilson.

Out of 375 local authorities in England and Wales, 356 responded to the FOI request.

South Holland and South Kesteven District Councils, the latter serving Bourne and the Deepings, along with Boston Borough Council which provides public services to villages such as Bicker, Kirton, Sutterton and Wyberton, referred a total of 6,145 debts to bailiffs during 2014-15.

In response to the 1,916 referrals by South Holland District Council, Coun Coupland said: “The vast majority of residents in the district pay their council tax on time and in-year collection last year from over 36,000 households was 97.86 per cent.

“When individuals or businesses are struggling to make payments, we always direct them to organisations offering free, independent and confidential support and advice nationwide.

“We would like to stress that when enforcement agents become involved in collections, this is always done as a last resort and we would urge anyone who is struggling to pay their council tax or business rates to contact our revenues team on 01775 761161.”

But the Money Advice Trust, along with other debt advice charities, has launched a new Stop the Knock campaign aimed at putting pressure on councils to find more “economic and socially responsible” ways of resolving council tax, business rates and other debt issues amongst the population.

Mrs Elson said: “Local councils are facing significant funding pressures and of course they have a duty to collect what they are owed.

“However, bailiff action is not only harmful to those in arrears but also a poor deal for the council taxpayer as our research shows that councils using bailiffs the most are actually less effective at collecting arrears. That is why we are urging councils to consider ways of improving debt collection practices, ensuring bailiffs are only used as an absolute last resort.”

But Coun Aaron Spencer, portfolio holder for finance at Boston Borough Council which referred 2,220 debts to bailiffs in 2014-15, said: “It makes logical sense that the councils that find themselves hardest pressed to get council tax payers to pay will obviously be those most likely to have to use bailiffs.

“We never want to do that but when we have a duty to ensure everyone pays what they should, we are sometimes left with no option.”