Calls to reduce use of bailiffs

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ST Helens Council has called upon the bailiff service almost 4,000 times over the last year.

New research by Money Advice Trust has revealed that the authority instructed bailiffs 3,755 times to collect debts owed by individuals and businesses during 2014/15.

Bailiff action is not only harmful to those in arrears – it is also a poor deal for the council taxpayer

Joanna Elson

The research was conducted as part of National Debtline’s new Stop The Knock campaign and follows the release of official figures showing that St Helens Borough Council ended the 2014/15 year with £9.3 million in unpaid council tax arrears.

The findings rank St Helens Borough Council at 177 out of 326 for local authority bailiff use in England and Wales, relative to size of authority.

But the figure represents a decrease of 38 percent on two years ago, when the council reported 6,076 referrals in the 2012 calendar year.

Experts at National Debtline welcomed the fall, but said that the authority needs to do more to decrease its reliance on bailiffs as a means of collecting debts.

The charity is calling for bailiffs, now known legally as enforcement agents, to be used only as a last resort, with a greater focus on preventative work and early detection and intervention where residents and businesses fall behind.

Last year National Debtline provided free, independent advice to 350 residents in the St Helens area, and says it wants to help many more who are struggling financially in the area.

The charity has written to the Leader of the Council with details of its latest research on bailiff use, and to call for improvements to debt collection practices to make sure people who are struggling get the free advice they need.

Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline said:

“Local councils are facing significant funding pressures – and they of course have a duty to collect what they are owed. In the case of council tax this is crucial in ensuring proper funding for the services that local people rely on.

“I would like to congratulate St Helens Borough Council on reducing its reliance on bailiffs for debt collection over the last two years. The council’s use of bailiffs, however, remains too high. On the front line of debt advice we know that sending the bailiffs in can deepen debt problems, rather than solve them – and it can also have a severe impact on the wellbeing of people who are often already in a vulnerable situation.

“Bailiff action is not only harmful to those in arrears – it is also a poor deal for the council taxpayer. “Our research shows that the councils who use bailiffs the most are actually less effective at collecting council tax arrears. That’s why we are urging councillors to consider ways they can continue to improve the council’s debt collection practices, and ensure that bailiffs are only used as an absolute last resort.”

A spokesman for St Helens Council said: “The council has a legal duty to collect money owed and only use enforcement agents as a last resort. We have reviewed our recovery procedures and now have in place protocols with Citizens Advice St Helens to support financially vulnerable residents.”

Anyone who is struggling to cope with council tax arrears or any other kind of debt can seek free advice from National Debtline at www.nationaldebtline.org or by phoning 0808 808 4000.