Local authorities in England and Wales have substantially increased their use of bailiffs to collect debts over the last two years, a surge driven by a rise in parking debt referrals.
Research by the debt charity Money Advice Trust has revealed that councils sent 2.6 million debts to bailiffs – or enforcement agents – in 2018/19. This is a 7% rise on two years ago.
Based on Freedom of Information requests, the study shows that parking debts were passed to bailiffs on nearly 1.1 million occasions – a 21% increase on the same period in 2016/17.
Money Advice Trust did find that the number of council tax debts passed to bailiffs remained stable for the first time after a 10% surge during the previous two years.
However, the charity warned that the use of enforcement agents to collect council tax debts still remains high at more than 1.4 million referrals in 2018/19.
Despite the high use of bailiffs by councils, the debt charity’s report Stop The Knock 2019 notes that there has been ‘modest improvement in practices’, with more councils adopting best practice on affordability and vulnerability.
The proportion of councils who have reduced their bailiff use over the last two years stands at 51% – up from 38% two years ago.
Sixty-four councils have now also signed up to the Citizens Advice/Local Government Association Council Tax Protocol – up from 50 two years ago. A further 23 are reportedly considering doing this.
Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, warned that bailiff action is ‘harmful to people in debt’.
‘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,’ she said.
‘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.
‘We will continue to work constructively with councils to help them reduce their bailiff use – and to impress on central Government the urgent need for the national policy changes that are required to quicken the pace of change.’
Responding to the report, Russell Hamblin-Boone, chief executive of the Civil Enforcement Association, said: ‘This is a broadly positive report that shows that the regulations in enforcement are working well.
‘Welfare reforms and more rigorous debt recovery by local authorities has led to an increase in enforcement activity, but this remains a last resort.
‘Enforcement action is an option used by local authorities to recover over £500m of unpaid taxes and fines recovered each year, at no cost to the public bodies, which funds local services from adult social care and children's services, to refuse collections and road repairs.’