Nobody wants a debt collector knocking on their door. But if you’re behind on your council tax payments, that could happen more easily than you realise.

New figures from two of the UK’s leading debt charities suggest that the number of people approaching them for help over council tax arrears are at a record high.

StepChange Debt Charity and The Money Advice Trust said councils should move away from the “counterproductive” approach of aggressively pursuing debts and calling in bailiffs and instead work with people to help them sort out their debt problems.

Bailiffs should only ever be used as a last resort

Joanna Elson, chief executive, the Money Advice Trust
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Analysis of StepChange’s clients found a 25% increase in those with council tax arrears – from £717 in 2011 to £961 in 2015.

In 2011, just 14% of the charity’s clients had council tax debts, but that figure increased to 30% last year.

National Debtline has seen a rise in callers battling council tax debts. Image by A and N photography/Shutterstock.com

Figures from National Debtline, the free advice service run by the Money Advice Trust, showed a similar trend, with the number of callers dealing with council tax debts rising from 14% in 2007 to 25% last year.

The Money Advice Trust’s recent Stop The Knock campaign revealed that 2.1m debts were passed to bailiffs by local authorities in 2014/15 – up 16% over a two-year period. Of these, 1.27m referrals related to council tax arrears.

Both charities have today voiced concerns that the growing use of bailiffs is adding extra stress and prompting people to take decisions that could make their financial problems worse.

They said local authorities should follow the lead of Islington, Bexley, Brent and Southwark councils, which have stopped using bailiffs in cases where the resident receives Council Tax Support, on the grounds that they are already financially vulnerable.

StepChange and the Money Advice Trust said current voluntary guidance should be made stronger legally, including requiring local authorities to report debt collection methods and outcomes to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) so it can monitor good practice.

The charities called for reforms to make sure there is a more balanced approach by councils to collecting debts, focused on helping people via affordable repayment plans.

This would not only lead to less stress than more aggressive methods, but would probably recover more money in the long-term.

Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, said: “With council tax arrears continuing to increase, it has never been more important for local authorities to improve their debt collection practices.

Councils are being urged to help people via repayment plans, rather than calling in bailiffs. Image by LuckyImages/Shutterstock.com

“Unfortunately many councils are still being far too quick to pass debts to bailiffs, with 2.1m referrals made in the space of just 12 months alone.

“Bailiffs should only ever be used as a last resort – and they shouldn’t be used at all in the case of recipients of Council Tax Support, who councils have already identified as requiring additional help to keep on top of their finances.”

She said the publication of a recent independent review led by former MP Eric Ollerenshaw, which raised concerns over local authorities’ increasing use of bailiffs, gives the government an opportunity to put the situation right.

StepChange’s chief executive Mike O’Connor, added: “We know that often the default position of councils is to aggressively pursue arrears through the court process and by instructing bailiffs.

“It may come as a surprise to people that public bodies are more aggressive in pursuing debts than many private companies.

“This counterproductive approach needs to stop immediately and be replaced with one that is fairer and more constructive."