Bedford Borough Council instructed bailiffs 9,276 times to collect debts owed by individuals and businesses during 2014/15, according to new research by the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline.
The figure, revealed by the council in response to a Freedom of Information request, shows more needs to be done to help those in financial difficulty at an earlier stage, experts say.
The research was conducted as part of National Debtline’s new Stop The Knock campaign and follows the release of official figures last month showing that Bedford Borough Council ended the 2014/15 year with £7.8 million in unpaid council tax arrears.
In total, councils in England and Wales instructed bailiffs 2.1 million times for debts including council tax, parking, business rates and other arrears – an increase of 16 percent on two years ago when the Money Advice Trust last researched the issue.
The findings rank Bedford Borough Council at 50 out of 326 for local authority bailiff use in England and Wales, relative to size of authority.
The 9,276 bailiff referrals made by Bedford Borough Council in 2014/15 represents an increase of 62 percent on two years ago, when the council reported 5,725 referrals in the 2012 calendar year.
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 315 residents in the Bedford 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 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.
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 improve the council’s debt collection practices, and ensure that bailiffs are only used as an absolute last resort.
“I would urge anyone in Bedford who is struggling to cope with council tax arrears, or any other type of debt, to seek free advice from National Debtline as soon as possible.”
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.
National Debtline’s Bailiff Golden Rules
1. You should get notice in advance that a bailiff is likely to call.
2. If you know that a visit is likely, make sure that you do not leave any windows or external doors open.
3. If the bailiffs have not already taken details of your car, hide it well away from your property or lock it in a garage. If you do not have access to a garage, you could park the vehicle away from your property. However, if the bailiff finds it, they could clamp or remove it. The bailiffs can also clamp or remove your vehicle if you park it on your own drive.
4. When bailiffs visit, they should show you identification such as a badge or ID card, when you request it, so you know who they are.
5. In most cases, bailiffs should not force entry to your home if they have not been in before.
6. You do not have to let the bailiff into your home if they have not been in peacefully before.
7. If the bailiff has been into your home, taken control of your goods properly and you have not kept to any agreement you made with them, they usually have the right to return and take your goods. There are goods that bailiffs should not take, such as essential household items or items that belong to someone else.
8. Keep calm and don’t be intimidated. Getting angry or fighting with a bailiff will make the situation worse.