Charity says bailiffs should be a last resort

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Babergh District Council has been told it should do more to stop the use of bailiffs by a national debt charity.

During 2014/2015 the council instructed bailiffs 801 times to collect debts owed by individuals and businesses, according to new research by the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline.

The charity says the figure, revealed by the council in response to a Freedom of Information request, shows that more needs to be done to help those in financial difficulty at an earlier stage.

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 Babergh District Council ended the 2014/15 year with £1.8 million in unpaid council tax arrears.

The research ranked Babergh District Council at 286th out of 326 for local authority bailiff use in England and Wales, relative to the size of the authority.

The 801 bailiff referrals made by Babergh District Council represents a decrease of nine percent compared to two years ago, when the council reported 884 referrals in the 2012 calendar year.

Experts at National Debtline welcomed the fall, but said that the authority still needed 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 91 residents in the Babergh area, and says it wants to help many more who are struggling financially.

The charity has written to leader of the council Jennie Jenkins 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 Babergh District Council on making some progress in 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.”

Mrs Elson urged residents in the district that are struggling to cope with debt to seek advice from the National Debtline by phoning 0808 808 4000.