COUNCILS in north Essex sent bailiffs to collect thousands of debts last year, a new report has revealed.

Colchester Council referred 14,445 debts to bailiffs in the past year, 603 fewer than two years earlier – a drop of four per cent.

Bailiffs, also known as enforcement agents, visit properties to remove and sell goods for the repayment of certain debts, including council tax arrears, parking notices and others owed to the council.

The Money Advice Trust, which operates the National Debtline, said there has been a seven per cent increase in bailiff use across the country - driven by a 21 per cent rise in the number of parking debts referred.

Joanna Elson, chief executive, said: “Bailiff action is harmful to people in debt, and these findings should concern us all.

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

“Of equal importance, however, is reducing the number of debts that are being passed to bailiffs in the first place.”

“Bailiff action should only ever be used as a last resort, and can be avoided by early intervention, providing free debt advice, and agreeing affordable repayment arrangements.”

“We will continue to work constructively with councils to help them reduce their bailiff use, and to impress upon central government the urgent need for the national policy changes that are required to quicken the pace of change.”

A spokesman for Colchester Council said: “Each authority will have a different way of recording referral data, which will necessarily affect how directly comparable the information is.“Our data does not show the number of households referred to enforcement agents but includes a total number of referrals that can comprise a significant amount of double-counting.

“If a resident has agreed to a payment arrangement with an enforcement agent but subsequently defaults on that arrangement, it would be referred back again. This could happen multiple times on the same account, showing as multiple referrals within the total figure.

“With regards to our efforts to reduce the use of bailiffs: we are always working to proactively support residents to prevent enforcement action where possible. Colchester Council is fully committed to supporting customers who face financial difficulties.

“We have a proactive approach and contact our customers as soon as an account goes into arrears, so that we can provide the necessary support and help they need to avoid the enforcement process.”

“Cases would be referred to an enforcement agent only after multiple attempts to contact a resident had been tried, but where no payment or response from them had been received.

“Once an account falls into arrears, we encourage customers to contact us if they are unable to meet their liabilities. We have highly-trained officers who are experienced in providing debt advice, and also enlist a number of partners who can provide more in-depth support.

“The council has a Customer Support Team that provides complex case support for vulnerable customers or for those experiencing financial difficulties, as well as a Welfare Reform Team which can support residents affected by changes to benefits.

“The council regularly reviews its processes for Council Tax collection and recovery, using a number of techniques to encourage payments such as text reminders and Direct Debit campaigns. We work with Citizens’ Advice to ensure that our practices continue to meet all of the standards within the Council Tax Protocol.”

Tendring Council sent 194 parking debts to bailiffs in 2018/19, twice as many as in 2016/17, when 74 referrals were made.

Michael Talbot, cabinet member with responsibility for parking, said the figures reflected an increase in visitors during the hot summer of 2018.

“We only refer matters to bailiffs as a last resort, and take a fair approach to parking,” he said.

“Anyone issued with a fine only has to pay half if the fine is paid within 14 days, and people can also appeal both to ourselves and the Traffic Penalty Tribunal if they think the penalty is unfairly issued.

“We also support residents’ parking with permits allowing them free parking after 11am for ten months of the year, thought to be unique among councils.”

The Money Advice Trust’s research also looked at how local authorities manage debt collection, and found that 99 per cent of councils, including Tendring Council and Colchester Council, point residents in financial difficulty in the direction of free debt advice.

The Local Government Association argued that councils “have a duty to their residents” to collect unpaid debts.

But said it was working with Citizens Advice to develop fairer recovery and enforcement policies.