Bailiffs called in by councils for 1.8m debts, charity warns

Bailiff in Birmingham Debt advice charities are concerned councils are turning to bailiffs too quickly

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Local councils have called in bailiffs an "excessive" 1.8m times in the last year to collect debts on their behalf, according to the Money Advice Trust.

The figure comes after the debt advice charity submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all 374 local authorities in England and Wales.

The charity called on councils to be more responsible in managing their debt collection.

But councils said bailiffs were only ever used as a "last resort".

The charity said the most common debts referred by local authorities were council tax arrears, business rate arrears and parking fines.

Around 98% of councils responded to the FOI request and the charity found an "extreme variation" as to how frequently councils addressed the issue.

Birmingham, the UK's largest local authority, referred debts on 82,329 occasions in the last 12 months - the highest number of any council.

'Work with people'

To measure which councils used bailiffs most frequently, regardless of their size, the charity compared the number of times they were instructed as a percentage of the total number of properties in a local authority.

Wendy Ritchie: Bailiff visit was "worst thing ever"

It found that although Birmingham had the highest number of referrals, this amounted to 17% of the city's total number of properties.

The London borough of Newham instructed bailiffs 55,652 times - nearly 50% of the total number of properties.

The charity says this does not mean half of Newham's residents have had debts passed to bailiffs, as many of the debts relate to parking fines and these could apply to those who live outside the borough.

An individual may be subject to more than one referral to bailiffs, or there may be more than one individual in a household who has had their debt passed on.

Newham mayor Robin Wales said that two thirds of its parking fines were issued to people who lived outside the borough.

He told the BBC: "We only use bailiffs as a last resort. Nobody wants to use them. They're expensive to use.

"And it depends on the nature of the debt you've got. If it's housing or council tax, we'll work with people and we'll try and get them to come up with an offer to pay it over a period."

But Money Advice Trust chief executive Joanna Elson said the figures showed councils need to change their behaviour.

"One point eight million debt referrals to bailiffs is clearly excessive," she said.

Start Quote

Councils offer a broad range of support to people facing genuine difficulties paying their bills ”

End Quote Local Government Association

"Local authorities seem to be assuming that anyone not paying debts is a 'won't pay', rather than a 'can't pay'."

The Citizens Advice Bureau, which found there had been a 38% increase in complaints about private bailiffs over the last five years, said it was concerned that councils were too quick to pass debts on.

And it said it had evidence that private bailiffs "frequently overstate their powers, act aggressively and bump up debts by levying excessive and illegal fees and charges".

Both charities want more councils to follow guidelines set up by Citizens Advice and backed by the Local Government Association (LGA).

The LGA said it was "misleading and irresponsible" to suggest that councils used bailiffs as anything other than a "last resort".

It said its members "offer a broad range of support to people facing genuine difficulties paying their bills.

"This can include setting up flexible payment plans or guiding people through the process of applying for financial help."

The government is expected to bring in new laws next year to tackle aggressive bailiffs.

Top 20 councils using bailiffs for debt collection

Council Total referrals Bailiff referrals (residential) Referrals (business)

Source: Money Advice Trust

Birmingham City

82,329

77,883

4,446

City of Westminster

56,222

53,635

3,775

Newham, London

55,652

54,717

3,488

Croydon, London

50,209

48,858

1,351

Liverpool City

47,054

43,834

3,220

Lambeth, London

43,011

41,644

1,367

Manchester City

42,012

38,524

3,488

Leeds City

40,780

39,168

1,612

Redbridge, London

35,502

34,334

1,168

Southwark, London

33,130

31,112

2,018

Waltham Forest, London

32,215

30.954

1,261

Hounslow, London

26,897

25,258

1,639

Bradford

24,673

23,545

1,128

Lewisham, London

24,190

23,340

850

Hammersmith & Fulham, London

23,076

22,175

901

Enfield

18,869

18,127

742

Luton

18,378

17,938

440

Cornwall

18,112

16,781

1,331

Coventry

17,128

16,276

852

Sheffield

16,708

15,424

1,284

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