Councils should stop bailiff use for council tax collections to protect vulnerable people

“Reforming the law around bailiff action itself is vital if we are to protect people from harm."

Anti-poverty charities have refreshed calls for councils to stop using bailiffs to collect council tax as figures show that over £1.4 million debt referrals were made last year. 

The Money Advice Trust (MAT) found that the use of debt collectors for debts including parking tickets, council tax and more had increased by seven percent in the last two years across local authorities in England and Wales. 

Over a third of people who contact the Money Advice Trust for help with their finances report being in arrears because of council tax. 

Joanna Elson, the chief executive of MAT, explained that the use of bailiffs by councils was having a bad impact, especially on vulnerable groups of people such as the elderly. 

“Bailiff action is harmful to people in debt – and the fact that local authorities are passing 2.6m debts a year to bailiffs should concern us all,” she said. 

83 percent of callers to MAT who had interactions with bailiffs said that the experience had a negative impact on their wellbeing. 

Elson explained that a change in law was the only way that local councils would stop relying on bailiffs. 

“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,” Elon added. 

The Local Government Association released a “good practice protocol” alongside Citizens Advice in 2017, and they explained that they are seeing more councils sign up to the scheme which helps councils navigate debt collection in a mindful manner. 

Richard Watts, the chair of the Local Government Association, said that it was imperative for councils to collect council tax, but that it could be done in a “constructive” way. 

“Councils have a duty to their residents to collect taxes, which play a vital role in funding important services that people rely on.

“However, we realise that times are tough and councils do their best to protect those affected the most, whether through introducing hardships funds or taking a sympathetic and constructive approach to the way we collect unpaid tax,” Watts said. 

Meka Beresford is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.

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4 Responses to “Councils should stop bailiff use for council tax collections to protect vulnerable people”

  1. Julia Gibb

    Meka forgot one key point – it does not apply to Scotland!

  2. Dave Roberts

    Yes, a point I was going to raise about the prorogation. How does a Scots decision apply to the rest of the country when the Scottish legal system is different? English law is the law of England and Wales, or it was when I studied it. The other issue is that many if not most of the councils will be Labour controlled and spouting the usual left wing rhetoric that the don’t believe.

  3. Gary

    Well, your accompanying picture is alarmist, sensationalist and a lie. Please remove it and put something more responsible in its place.

    But it is not the USE of Bailiffs that is the problem. It is the legislation relating to Bailiffs. They have no qualifications, little in the way of rules for how they act and no oversight whatever.

    As a previous commenter notes, “this does not apply in Scotland” The reason being that a different system applies. Instead of ‘Bailiffs’ there are Sheriff Officers and Messengers At Arms (depending on the court who’s orders they act upon) They are qualified, have a fixed set of charges set by ‘Act of Sederunt’ and have specific ways in which they may or may not act. They ONLY act under court orders ie Warrants etc to enforce court ordered matters, in this case we are talking about carrying out warrants for the collection of debt. The ‘Debtors Scotland Act (2000)’ ended having warrant sales at the homes of debtors (a VERY uncommon practise) and sought to prevent overuse of the Summary Warrant (as per local councils for Council Tax) Although relatively rare for Sheriff Officers to uplift good in lieu of debt they still have the power to do so as an absolute last resort. Usually time to pay arrangement can be put in place and if failed the court can order one that, if it fails, will result in goods being uplifted. These were rare in any case, for example – The Inland Revenue (as it was then) began action on 36,000 people in the last year prior to this act, only SIX of those resulted in goods being uplifted, the rest were resolved without doing so. This gives you an idea of the professionalism of the debt process using Sheriff Officers when compared to Bailiffs who are, in some cases simply cowboys who intimidate debtors. In Scotland this has never been the case and so debt problems are addressed more quickly by organisations who reach out MUCH more quickly than in the English model.

    Simply adopting the Scottish system ‘off the shelf’ may not be that easy. It would require training and a change in the law. But it would be well worth it. The system doesn’t JUST affect the Sheriff Officer part but also affects how debt colectors behave too. There is a tendency to be much more on the ball and more professional due to the law’s constraints for them. This has also had the effect of higher collection levels throughout the industry. Giving protections to debtors actually works for everyone.

  4. Tom Sacold

    People should pay their bills.

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