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Council bailiff use ‘should end’ for the most vulnerable

Money Advice Trust responds to Ollerenshaw Review of Local Council Tax Support.
The government should put an end to the practice of local authorities passing council tax debts to bailiffs in the case of the most vulnerable residents, according to the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline.  The call follows the publication of former MP Eric Ollerenshaw’s Independent Review of Local Council Tax Support (LCTS), which highlighted local authorities’ increasing use of bailiffs as an area of concern.
The report, commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), makes several recommendations three years on from the localisation of Council Tax Benefit in April 2013. 
These include a recommendation that the government “should enable LCTS recipients to pay off arrears through a voluntary attachment to benefits agreed with the council, without the requirement to obtain a liability order” through the courts, with safeguards to ensure that individuals are given the time and information they need to consider their options.  A liability order is needed to take a range of enforcement action, including the use of bailiffs, and can mean the addition of costs, ranging up to well over £100, to the debt.
The Money Advice Trust welcomed the recommendation and called for the government to go further by explicitly putting an end to the use of bailiffs for recipients of Local Council Tax Support, who are likely to be the most financially vulnerable of all those in arrears and have already been identified as requiring additional assistance.
The Money Advice Trust’s recent Stop The Knock research, highlighted in Ollerenshaw’s report, revealed that 2.1 million debts were passed to bailiffs by local authorities in 2014/15, an increase of 16 percent over a two-year period.  Of these, 1.27 million referrals related to council tax arrears.
One in four callers to National Debtline last year (25 percent) were in arrears on their Council Tax bills last year – up from 14 percent in 2007.
Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline, said:
“On the front line of debt advice we know that instructing bailiffs to collect council tax and other debts can deepen debt problems, rather than solve them – and this also has a serious impact on the wellbeing of residents who are already in a vulnerable situation.  Eric Ollerenshaw is right to highlight this as an area of concern.
“We have long warned that local authorities are too quick to pass debts onto enforcement agents, with 2.1 million debts referred to bailiffs in the space of 12 months alone.
“Bailiffs should only ever be used as a last resort – and we believe 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.  Instead, councils should use earlier intervention, signpost to free debt advice and make use of other repayment options.
“The publication of the Ollerenshaw Review gives the government a welcome opportunity to bring about real improvements in the way that local councils collect debts from some of the most vulnerable in society – and we would urge them to seize it.”
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