Council tax bailiffs should be called off, say charities
Vulnerable residents with council tax debts should be given breathing space to repay arrears rather than face the threat of bailiffs, two charities say.
Debt charities StepChange and the Money Advice Trust have reported rising levels of council tax debt.
They argue that increased use of bailiffs by councils could deepen these residents' financial problems.
The Local Government Association (LGA) said that bailiffs were only used as a last resort.
The LGA said that cuts to local government funding meant that some people who had previously been exempt from paying council tax were now having to pay.
"Significant cuts mean many [councils] have had little choice but to reduce council tax discounts for the working-age poor or low-income families...to avoid finding even more savings from spending on local services to meet the shortfall," said councillor Claire Kober, of the LGA.
The two charities say about a quarter of callers to their debt services have council tax arrears.
StepChange said that its clients were typically in arrears by £961 last year, up from £717 in 2011. There was a slight fall in arrears in 2013, but otherwise there had been a sharp rise each year between 2011 and 2015.
The charities argue that the threat of bailiffs causes extra stress and anxiety to those in debt, so there should be a delay before these collection agencies are called in.
"It may come as a surprise to people that public bodies are more aggressive in pursuing debts than many private companies," said Mike O'Connor, chief executive of StepChange.
"This counterproductive approach needs to stop immediately and be replaced with one that is fairer and more constructive."
Some councils rule out bailiff action against anyone who receives council tax support - as they are already considered to be financially vulnerable. Such a policy should be adopted nationwide, the charities said.
They also want a statutory breathing space scheme that guarantees anyone seeking debt advice is given a temporary freeze on debt interest and charges, and that any enforcement action is halted.
The LGA argued that giving people more time to pay could have unintended consequences.
"We agree that bailiffs should only ever be used as a last resort. Before the situation reaches a stage where bailiffs are involved several letters should have been written, people should have been encouraged to apply for financial support, and efforts should be made to arrange new payment plans or to attach the debt to a salary," said the LGA's Ms Kober.
"It is in everyone's interest to ensure those struggling to pay their council tax bills are set up on affordable and sustainable payment plans. However, there is always a risk that the longer a debtor goes on without paying, their repayment instalments will become even more difficult for them to manage and the debt will take longer to clear."
With 97% of council tax collected without the need for bailiffs or court action, the Department for Communities and Local Government said that the vast majority of residents paid on time.
"We have also made it easier for households to pay their bills in monthly instalments and published guidance to stop bad practices from aggressive bailiffs," a spokesman for the DCLG said.
"However, every penny of council tax that is not collected means a higher bill for everyone in the area so we expect councils to be sympathetic to those in genuine hardship, but take appropriate action to chase up outstanding debts, while delivering a fair deal for local families."