Councils sent 2.6 million debts to bailiffs and it should “concern us all”

The Money Advice Trust’s research found that 1.4 million council tax debts were passed on to debt collectors in England and Wales

A seven per cent rise in parking fine debts being passed on to debt collectors has driven a rise in the amount of debt councils are sending to bailiffs.

The Money Advice Trust’s Stop the Knock research found that local authorities passed on 2.6 million debts in 2018/19, with council tax arrears accounting for 1.4 million, virtually level with the previous two years.

But parking fines shot up to 1.1 million debts in that time, according to freedom of information requests sent by the charity behind the National Debtline.

Just over half of councils use fewer bailiffs, but the charity did note an improvement with debt collection practices across the board. If you’re in England and Wales and you want to see how your local authority stacks up then check out the Money Advice Trust’s interactive map.

However, three in 10 National Debtline callers were in council tax arrears – up from just 15 per cent in 2008 – while 83 per cent of those who have been contacted by bailiffs reported a negative impact on their well-being.

The Trust has penned a letter to council leaders and Local Government Minister Luke Hall outlining six steps to speed up improvements in debt collection practices.

They include asking the government to amend council tax regulations, place existing good practice guidance on a statutory footing as well as funding a requirement for councils to provide 100 per cent council tax support schemes.

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On the parking fine side, there are also calls for a review of how parking penalty charge notices are enforced to allow courts to suspend warrants and for people to pay in affordable instalments.

The Trust has also renewed its call for the government to introduce independent bailiff regulation alongside a complaints mechanism, made as part of the Taking Control group of debt advice charities. The Ministry of Justice is currently reviewing the case for independent bailiff regulation while the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are doing the same for council tax collection.

Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust – the charity that runs National Debtline – said: “Bailiff action is harmful to people in debt – and the fact that local authorities are passing 2.6 million debts a year to bailiffs should concern us all.

“Reforming the law around bailiff action itself is vital if we are to protect people from harm – and we are today renewing our call for the government to introduce independent bailiff regulation and a single complaints mechanism.

“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.”

A spokesman for another member of the Taking Control group, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute added: “We know from our own research that visits by bailiffs can cause significant distress to people struggling with their mental health.

“That’s why we’re calling on more local authorities to improve their debt collection practices, for example by adopting the Citizens Advice Council Tax Protocol.”