The use of bailiffs by local authorities in England and Wales has risen seven percent over the last two years, according to research by the Money Advice Trust.
More than 2.6 million debts were passed to bailiffs by local authorities in 2018-19, according to the research, which was based on Freedom of Information requests. The rise was primarily driven by a surge in the use of bailiffs to collect parking debts, the charity found.
While the number of referrals to bailiffs for council tax debt remained stable from two years earlier, the overall number of 1.4 million remains too high and around half of councils are continuing to increase their use of bailiffs for council tax.
Despite that, 51 percent used fewer bailiffs than two years ago – and the charity said it found a “modest net improvement” in debt collection practices in that time.
Indeed, it found Around six in 10 authorities (59 percent) have put a formal policy in place for dealing with residents in vulnerable circumstances, up from 56 percent two years ago. Formal policies were in place both in the form of separate documents, and as specific vulnerability sections in wider debt collection policies. A further three percent said they are currently considering putting a vulnerability policy in place.
The rate of change, though, is too slow, the charity said, and it called for change at both a national and local level.
Among those changes, it called for the government to review the enforcement of parking penalty charge notices and bring them into line with CCJs. Doing so would allow the court to suspend warrants and people to apply to pay through affordable instalments.
It also issued six recommendations for local authorities to consider:
Responding to the report, Russell Hamblin-Boone, chief executive of the Civil Enforcement Association, which represents bailiffs, 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.”
The Money Advice Trust renewed the call for the government to introduce independent bailiff regulation and an accompanying complaints mechanism. Calls for independent regulation were recently supported by the Justice Committee.
The Ministry of Justice is currently reviewing the case for independent bailiff regulation, while the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is conducting a review of council tax collection.
Money Advice Trust chief executive Joanna Elson OBE 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.
“Of equal importance, however, is reducing the number of debts that are being passed to bailiffs in the first place. 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.”