'Holistic' approach to debts sees Wigan Council slash use of bailiffs

Wigan Council has almost halved the use of bailiffs to recover debts in the space of just two years.

Monday, 16th September 2019, 8:41 am
Updated Monday, 16th September 2019, 9:41 am
The council has almost halved the use of bailiffs

The local authority once had the reputation of using the sometimes controversial tactic more than most other town halls in the country.

But while the figure for 2018/19 – 11,444 – is still above the national and regional averages, it constitutes a massive 49 per cent drop since 2016/17.

And this in the face of a seven per cent England and Wales increase debt collection instructions’ being issued to bailiffs.

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The town hall credited the fall to a new “holistic” approach including negotiating and referring people struggling to pay to expert advice.

Bailiffs, also known as enforcement agents, can visit a property to remove and sell goods to repay certain debts, including council tax arrears, parking notices and other debts owed to councils.

The Money Advice Trust (MAT), which runs National Debtline and Business Debtline, made the findings after receiving freedom of information (FOI) responses from 367 local authorities.

The figures range widely: Liverpool and Manchester run into many tens of thousands and Oldham called on bailiffs 21,392 times. Bolton was also higher with 12,703 instructions, but Rochdale used enforcement officers 7,469 times, Warrington 7,803 and Preston 4,495.

On a like-for-like basis, the use of bailiffs to collect debts has increased by seven per cent compared with 2016-17, the charity said - with parking debts behind the increase.

The MAT’s new figures show parking debts were passed to bailiffs on nearly 1.1 million occasions - a 21 per cent like-for-like increase on the same period in 2016-17.

The number of council tax debts passed to bailiffs remained stable, but remains high at more than 1.4 million referrals in 2018-19, the MAT said.

A breakdown of the numbers for Wigan show that those 11,444 call-outs break down into 9,413 for council tax arrears collections, 1,534 unpaid parking fines, 485 business rate defaulters and two people who owed council rents.

In 2016 Wigan was criticised by Citizens’ Advice for its “over-reliance” on enforcement officers, using them 20,822 times during the 2014-15 financial year.

That made Wigan the 43rd highest users of bailiffs out of 326 local authorities.

Lesley O’Halloran, assistant director for customer services and culture at Wigan Council, said: “Wigan Council offers a variety of support options for those who find themselves in financial difficulties.

“Our early intervention and prevention approach engages with customers who have difficulty paying. Where possible we will look to avoid the need to use enforcement agents and it is usually a last resort following other support offers and arrangements.

“A new holistic way of working includes negotiating affordable payment arrangements, maximising income and signposting to free, impartial advice.

“In line with The Deal, we are committed to working directly with residents to ensure they are able to access services in a way tailored to them. This is helping to significantly reduce our use of bailiffs by almost half, which is great news.”

The MAT said three in 10 callers to its National Debtline last year had council tax arrears - up from just 15 per cent in 2008.

Many of these callers are subject to bailiff action, with 83 per cent of National Debtline callers who have experienced bailiff action surveyed reporting a negative impact on their well-being.

The MAT said it has found evidence that more councils are adopting best practice on affordability and vulnerability.

It found 64 councils have now signed up to the Citizens Advice/LGA (Local Government Association) council tax protocol - up from 50 two years ago. A further 23 councils said they are considering doing this.

Joanna Elson, chief executive of the MAT, said: “Bailiff action should only ever be used as a last resort, and can be avoided by early intervention, making sure residents get the free debt advice they need, and agreeing repayment arrangements that are affordable and sustainable.

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

Chairman of the LGA’s resources board Richard Watts said: “Councils have a duty to their residents to collect taxes, which play a vital role in funding important services that people rely on.

“However, we realise that times are tough and councils do their best to protect those affected the most, whether through introducing hardships funds or taking a sympathetic and constructive approach to the way we collect unpaid tax.

“We have worked with Citizens Advice on a protocol for recovering debts, which as this report demonstrates is having a positive effect.

“It includes the need for fair collection and enforcement policies and the ability for councils to take back cases involving vulnerable families.

“Anyone having trouble paying their council bills should get in touch with their local authority for financial help and advice.”