Warning over council’s bailiff use

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Council chiefs in Wigan have been warned about their use of bailiffs in a charity report criticising increasingly “harsh collection practices”.

Citizens Advice says it has seen a huge surge in requests nationwide for help with council tax debts but that sending in collectors often made debt-ridden residents’ problems worse.

The charity made the call to local authorities across the country but its intervention is significant in Wigan due to the council’s regular use of bailiffs.

Wigan Council has previously been named as one of the country’s most prolific bailiff users, with debt collectors employed 20,822 times during the 2014-15 financial year.

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

A council spokesman declined to respond directly to Citizens Advice’s concerns or say whether bailiffs use increased or decreased in the past year.

However, Lesley O’Halloran, assistant director of customer services, insisted alternative monthly pay arrangements were put in place for debtors.

She added: “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.”

Between April 2015 and March 2016, Citizens Advice helped people with 196,000 council tax debt problems in England, making it the number one debt issue for the charity.

Citizens Advice has seen a 33 per cent increase in requests for help with council tax debts over the last three years. More than half surveyed said the council’s actions made it harder to clear their debts.