Local authorities referred 600,000 people to bailiffs last year - as council tax arrears rise

As councils increase their tax so too does the amount of bailiffs they hire, ITV News Consumer Editor Chris Choi reports

It’s the knock on the door everyone struggling to pay council tax fears most.

Jess King is one of those who heard that knock. In Yorkshire, where she lives, as in most places across England and Wales, council tax has gone up by as much as is allowed.

When Jess fell behind on paying her bills she was grieving after the death of her newborn baby and still looking after her other children.

Jess told ITV News: "I had a bailiff turn up at my house, and I had my little girl with me at the time. I got very upset; I was crying.

"My daughter was so scared - she was clinging to me; hiding behind my legs. She was asking who the bad man was because it's very intimidating; they have quite an aggressive tone. Stood in my doorway; wouldn't leave."

Jess isn't alone.

Jess King fell behind on her council tax. Credit: ITV News

ITV News sent Freedom of Information requests to around 100 of the biggest councils in England.

The responses we had revealed that the total amount owed in council tax arrears has increased by over 70% in the past 5 years.

The councils that responded to our information request told us that last year alone over one million people have received a court summons because they are in council tax arrears.

And almost 600,000 people have been referred to bailiffs - that's an average of one referral every minute.

The Noah's Ark Centre is a charity in Halifax which offers free debt advice to local people.

Andrew Sykes, one of the charity's founders, is worried that as council tax bills - and arrears - increase, so will the number of referrals to bailiffs. He is calling for local authorities to stop using bailiffs to recover council tax debt.

Mr Sykes says: "For too long, they've defaulted to this 'cheap option' of using enforcement agents.

"The reason it's cheap is because they don't charge the local authority anything for their instruction. They make their fees on the back of the clients that are paying the debt. Their fees get added onto the debt."

In North London, ITV News went out with volunteers who are part of another campaign to reduce the use of bailiffs by local authorities collecting council tax.

Some councils - including Bristol, Manchester and Hammersmith and Fulham - have already made changes.

Campaigner Maddie Ryan Tucker says: "We think it's a harmful practice. People are in debt, they're struggling. They need help, they need assistance, but instead they're getting letters saying bailiffs are being sent to the house, which is threatening.

"And then when the bailiffs do turn up, they're aggressive, they're rude, they're hostile".

Most councils across the country have been increasing their rates by the max amount allowed. Credit: PA

The Local Government Association told ITV News in a statment: "Enforcement agents should only ever be used as a last resort.

"Before the situation reaches a stage where enforcement agents are involved, several letters should have been written, people should have been encouraged to apply for financial support, and efforts should be made to arrange new payment plans."

Support with council tax is available for those who are eligible, but at the moment an estimated £2.9 billion of that help is going unclaimed.

Michelle Neal hadn't realised she qualified for council tax reductions when she fell behind and bailiffs' letters started to arrive. Now, she's working to get the information - and the money - to others.

Ms Neal says: "I just didn't know what to do. You can go on a list that's known as being a vulnerable customer. Some people don't even know about that.

"They have a little bit more of specialist team, that can help you out with that. But I didn't know about any of this until this last year. I think councils should be giving that information out".

Chris Lucas-Jones is a bailiff with 20 years' experience. He agreed to speak to ITV News to tell a side of the story he says is rarely reported.

He says: "You get so many people that lie to bailiffs and say that they are a vulnerable person, they can't pay. And then when you get down to their property, you see there's a different side to it.

"Yes, the agents do get paid incentives, but those incentives - they also do get paid for being fair with that individual".

As millions now face higher council tax bills, our new figures suggest that even more debt - and increased bailiff action - will not be far behind.

The Civil Enforcement Agency, which represents bailiffs, says: "Enforcement agencies have an increasingly challenging role to ensure payment from those that can pay their debts and help for those who can’t.

"They have fully trained welfare teams to identify and support people who are vulnerable or in genuine financial hardship. We work alongside debt charities to ensure that vulnerable people are protected, and there are positive outcomes for both local authorities and taxpayers.”

If you're worried about paying your council tax bill, support is available at the following links:

Citizens Advice offer this guide to checking your eligibility and applying for a council tax reduction: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/housing/council-tax/council-tax/council-tax/check-if-you-can-pay-less-council-tax/

Christians Against Poverty offers local debt support services across the country: capuk.org/help

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