Tougher regulation of bailiffs urged as debt levels rise
A charity has called for tougher regulation of bailiffs, as it calculated that households have fallen behind on essential bills by £18.9bn.
Arrears on these bills, such as council tax, have risen by 40% from the £13.5bn owed in 2011-12, Citizens Advice said.
Over the same period, the proportion of calls for help regarding bailiffs had risen significantly, it said.
But councils said they had a duty to collect taxes to protect services, and bailiffs said they were rarely used.
Bailiffs are typically used by creditors, on the authority of the courts, to seize property if people with debts fail to pay what they owe.
Citizens Advice said it was getting a call from someone needing help owing to bailiffs every three minutes. It is calling for a bailiffs regulator in England and Wales.
It points to a case of an elderly couple who owed £700 in council tax who are now afraid to open their front door after bailiffs used aggressive tactics and threatened to call in the police.
It also highlighted the case of a man receiving cancer treatment who missed a £30 parking fine then found bailiffs had got into his home and were removing possessions.
New laws were introduced in England and Wales in 2014 aimed at protecting people with debts from unfair tactics.
But a review by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) earlier this year revealed "lingering concerns" about the behaviour of a minority of bailiffs.
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The MoJ will soon launch a call for evidence on bailiffs and has promised to take action if necessary.
Citizens Advice said it feared aggressive tactics were leading to further debt and mental health problems.
It said falling behind with household bills could have particularly severe consequences, such as having essential services cut off or losing a home.
"Small missed bills can skyrocket through excessive enforcement fees," said Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice.
HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) said that it did not use bailiffs to collect tax credit overpayments - which accounted for £7.5bn of the £18.9bn of arrears calculated by Citizens Advice.
Russell Hamblin-Boone, chief executive of the Civil Enforcement Association, which represents bailiffs, said only 18% of the debt identified by Citizens Advice actually qualified for action by certified bailiffs, and only a tiny number would end up with enforcement.
"A visit by an enforcement agent is always the last resort. Agents are highly trained and must follow a process set out in detailed regulations to ensure that they collect unpaid council tax and court fines fairly," he said.
"The fees that are added to the outstanding debt are fixed by government and anyone owing money to the council will receive calls, letters, emails and texts and an opportunity to set up a payment plan.
"We work closely with the voluntary sector and under the regulations people are sign posted to debt advice, which accounts for the increase in numbers. But if anyone has strong evidence of bad practice we will investigate."
Meanwhile, councils said that they were facing strains on their own funding and were required to collect taxes.
Richard Watts, from the Local Government Association, said: "No council wants to have to debt collect from its residents, particularly from people on low incomes, but local authorities have a duty to their residents to collect taxes which fund essential services, such as protecting vulnerable children, caring for the elderly, collecting bins, and keeping roads maintained.
"It is essential that vital services are protected and that these funds are collected."