TOWN hall chiefs are among the most prolific users of bailiffs to collect debts in England and Wales, new figures reveal.
Wigan Council used debt collectors 20,822 times during the last financial year, according to research by the Money Advice Trust.
That makes Wigan the 43rd highest users of bailiffs out of 326 local authorities.
However, council chiefs dispute the figures, which the trust says came from a Freedom of Information request.
They say the real figure is 19,313 but that still puts the borough high up in the list of local authorities.
The Money Advice Trusts says the figures show more needs to be done to help those in financial difficulties at an earlier stage.
Locally, the number of bailiff referrals increased by a staggering 487 per cent in two years.
In the 2012 calendar year, the council made 3,546 referrals. The charity is calling for bailiffs to be used only as a last resort.
Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, 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.
“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. I would urge anyone in Wigan 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.”
Penny Higgins, Wigan Council’s award and taxation manager, said: “It is common for one debtor to have two or more orders sent to an enforcement agent at the same time so it means the number of households affected is much lower than the figure quoted.
“Wigan Council offers a variety of help options for those who find themselves struggling with payments, including encouraging people to sign up to MyAccount to very easily manage their own accounts online, set up Direct Debits or make online payments.
“When we first issue a magistrate court summons for non-payment we automatically offer them an alternative monthly pay arrangement to attempt to avoid the need for us to enforce the liability order using methods such as enforcement agents. If they do not take up the arrangement we write to them asking them to provide us details of their income, expenditure and employment details offering a further chance for those in arrears to engage with us to tell us if they are having difficulties in paying.”
Both Wigan Council and the Money Advice Trust say the key to successfully getting out of debt is to talk to the council.
The Money Advice Trust has also published a number of rules for dealing with bailiffs.
You should get notice in advance that a bailiff is likely to call.
If you know that a visit is likely, make sure that you do not leave any windows or external doors open.
When bailiffs visit, they should show you identification such as a badge or ID card, when you request it.
In most cases, bailiffs should not force entry to your home if they have not been in before.
You do not have to let the bailiff into your home if they have not been in peacefully before.