More should be done to help vulnerable in debt

The Money Advice Trust has said that more could be done for the vulnerable in debt, after discovering that council tax arrears accounted for 60 per cent of cases sent to bailiffs by local authorities last year.

The charity reports that bailiffs were used to chase council tax arrears on 1.38 million occasions out of 2.3 million cases, while also being used on 810,000 occasions for unpaid parking fines, 86,000 times for unpaid business rates, and on 50,000 occasions to recover overpaid housing benefit.

The Stop the Knock report paper conceded that there had been widespread improvement in the way councils used this last resort, but still found that the use of bailiffs has risen by 14 per cent compared with two years ago.

50 councils have signed up to a protocol aimed at preventing those at risk from getting behind on key payments, but the Money Advice Trust wants more councils to sign up to exempt the most vulnerable from bailiff action completely.

Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, said: "The growing use of bailiffs to collect debts by many local authorities is deeply troubling. Councils are under enormous financial pressure, and they of course need to recover what they are owed in order to fund vital services. However, many councils are far too quick to turn to bailiff action."

Claire Kober, chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board, said: “No council wants to ask people on the lowest incomes to pay more, but councils have a duty to their residents to collect taxes. With councils facing a £5.8 billion funding shortfall by 2020, it’s essential that these funds are collected so these vital services can be protected.

“Before councils use bailiffs, which are only ever used as a last resort, people will have been encouraged to apply for monetary support and efforts will have been made to either attach the debt to a salary or arrange new payment plans. Anyone who is having trouble paying their council tax or bills should contact their local authority as soon as possible, for financial help and advice, and to discuss the options available.”