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Kent councils call out bailiffs 36,000 times in 2015-16

Bailiffs were used more than 36,000 times by councils in Kent to recover unpaid council tax in 2015-16, we can reveal.

They turned to bailiffs on 36,527 occasions to chase those in arrears - a rise of 3,672 on the previous year.

Campaigners say authorities should do more to help those in debt by offering different payment arrangements.

Cutting up credit cards: stock picture
Cutting up credit cards: stock picture

Council tax bills are set to rise significantly this year, prompting fears that more people could be plunged into debt.

Figures obtained by the KM Group through Freedom of Information requests reveal that one council - Maidstone - used bailiffs 5,725 times in 2015-16, a staggering 3,179 more than the previous year and a 124% increase.

It attributed the increase to a decision to contract six additional enforcement agencies to help collect unpaid council tax.

In a statement, it said: “This additional resource helped us collect more unpaid debts, which is reflected in the increased numbers shown in 2015-16.

"The council will only instigate enforcement action as a last resort.”

In Tunbridge Wells, bailiffs were used 2,553 times, representing an increase of 784, the second highest rise of all authorities.

It also attributed the increase to a decision to appoint six additional companies to chase up debts.

Shepway council turned to bailiffs 2,235 times in 2015-16, a rise of 407 while Gravesham used them 4,106 times, an increase of 337.

Thanet used bailiffs more times than any other council but the figure - 5,631 - was actually lower than the previous year, when they were used 6,842 times.

Just four councils used bailiffs less in 2015-16 than the previous year: Dartford, Dover, Sevenoaks and Thanet.

The difficulties facing council-tax payers is underlined by other data obtained through FOI requests showing councils were granted more than 50,000 liability orders by the courts for unpaid bills - although that was less than in 2014-15.

What councils said:

  • Maidstone: “The council has an obligation to collect unpaid council tax. In 2014, the council began to use a pool of six enforcement companies in addition to the in-house team. This helped us collect more unpaid debts, reflected in the increased numbers in 2015-16. Where people experience difficulty paying council tax, the council will always look at potential options to resolve the debt. These may include installments made over 10 or 12 months and, where appropriate, other realistic arrangements. Should payment not be forthcoming then recovery action is taken; however, even if formal recovery has been started any reasonable alternatives can be agreed to clear the debt. The council will only instigate enforcement action as a last resort.
  • Tunbridge Wells issued a similar statement, saying it too had appointed six new enforcement agencies to recoup money it was owed.
People struggling with debts: stock image
People struggling with debts: stock image
  • Thanet council said: “As a council we have a public duty to balance the needs of all 65,000 households in the district with the funding of public services. In collecting council tax arrears, the council will only refer a case to an enforcement agent when all other forms of negotiation have been exhausted, payment arrangements broken or when the customer has refused to reply to any of our letters or phone calls. The council will always try to help those in genuine difficulty and the Council Tax Support level is currently one of the more generous in Kent.”
  • Shepway council said: “Shepway residents have a really good record for paying their tax and it’s not fair if the minority get away with not paying what they owe.” However, enforcement action is always used as a last resort and before using this sanction we will give people the opportunity to make an arrangement to pay off what they owe. We will contact them by phone, email or letter – and sometimes a combination of all three.”

Campaign groups have expressed concerns at the use of bailiffs by councils.

They say more should be done to help those in arrears organise payment plans.

Citizens Advice says growing numbers are facing problems paying their bills and between April 2015 and March 2016, it helped 190,000 with council tax debts.

In a survey last year, it found 54% of people felt the council’s actions had made it harder to clear their debts.

It cited the example of a person who contacted the charity about a debt of £27 which ballooned to £417 after the council charged them fees for obtaining a court order and calling in bailiffs.

Thousands of people in Kent struggle to pay their council tax bills: Stock image
Thousands of people in Kent struggle to pay their council tax bills: Stock image

Bailiffs can be used when councils have exhausted other options to recover unpaid tax. They are allowed to seize goods and possessions, which can then be auctioned.

People confronted by bailiffs may find it is not just the outstanding council tax they may need to cover.

They are entitled to add charges, covering other costs that could be associated with their work on behalf of councils.

These include £75 for being instructed by the creditor to carry out initial checks, investigations; £235 to cover visiting and entering premises and taking goods; £110 for removing goods for sale, valuing them and arranging for them to be sold.

However, there are restrictions on goods that can be taken. These include washing machines, dishwashers and ovens, as well as bedding or computer equipment used for work.

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