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'Something is seriously wrong here' - bailiffs used 21,000 times by councils in Norfolk in last year

PUBLISHED: 06:30 28 August 2015 | UPDATED: 11:09 28 August 2015

Bailiffs are increasingly being used by councils to chase debts. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Bailiffs are increasingly being used by councils to chase debts. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

The use of bailiffs by councils in Norfolk has soared over the past two years, with authorities instructing them to collect debts more than 21,000 times in 12 months.

Authorities are increasingly turning to bailiffs, legally known as ‘enforcement agents’, to chase up unpaid council tax debts, cash owed for parking fines and to recoup benefits overpayments.

Figures revealed using the Freedom Of Information Act, show that Great Yarmouth Borough Council was the Norfolk authority which instructed bailiffs most frequently in 2014/15.

It issued 5,137 instructions - an 86pc increase on two years ago. That ranked the council as the 77th most prolific user of bailiffs of 326 councils nationally.

In a statement, the council stressed bailiffs remained a last resort, but said: “It is vital that everyone pays what they owe – otherwise it is unfair on the vast majority of people who do pay and also means there is less money for public services, which are already under increasing financial pressure.”

Norwich City Council asked bailiffs to pursue debts 4,000 times, which was up 34 per cent two years ago.

A spokeswoman for Norwich City Council said: “The council has a duty to pursue non-payments of debts and always tries to work with people before taking court action or referring cases to external enforcement agencies. These agencies are only used as a last resort.

“We encourage people who have difficulty in paying to contact us as soon as possible to reach an agreed way forward, and there are several opportunities to do this prior to a case being referred.”

But the biggest increase was in North Norfolk, where the district council’s use soared by 155pc in two years. Last year the council instructed bailiffs 2,510 times.

The council said the reason for the sharp increase was because the figures were “unusually low” in 2012/13.

Wyndham Northam, North Norfolk’s cabinet member for finance, said: “We use bailiffs as a last resort in order to collect debt due to the public purse.

“We would urge everyone to talk to us as early as possible if they are faced with difficulties in paying; and make arrangements directly with us. We try every avenue available to us to ensure debts do not increase and get out of hand.

“At the end of the day if people don’t pay because they won’t pay we will reserve the right to use bailiffs.”

The only Norfolk council which reduced its use of bailiffs was Broadland District Council. They only instructed bailiffs 624 times - down 36pc on two years ago.

A spokeswoman said: “The council used the introduction of new government regulations around this last year as an opportunity to review our procedures.

“We changed the letters we sent out to people, giving them very clear warnings of the costs they would incur if debts were passed to an Enforcement Agent, and encouraging them to contact us. We also try to contact people personally to make arrangements, rather than just sending the debt for recovery.

“We have not been soft on debt, as we recognise the importance of everyone contributing to local services, but we do try to be flexible.”

South Norfolk instructed bailiffs 2,067 times in 2014/15, West Norfolk on 4,647 occasions and Breckland 2,278 times.

Over the border, Waveney District Council did not respond to the Freedom Of Information request.

The statistics were collated by the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline.

Joanna Elson, OBE, the charity’s chief executive, said: “Something is seriously wrong here. On the front line of debt advice we know that sending the bailiffs in can deepen debt problems, rather than solve them – and it can also have a severe impact on the wellbeing of people who are often already in a vulnerable situation.

“Local authorities are facing significant funding pressures – and they of course have a duty to collect what they are owed. In the case of council tax, this is particularly crucial in ensuring proper funding for the local services we all rely on.

“Too many councils, however, are far too quick to escalate to bailiff action when better preventive work, earlier detection and support for people who fall behind are far better options for all concerned.

“Our message is clear – bailiffs should only be used as an absolute last resort, and the earlier residents and business owners who are struggling can be signposted to free sources of advice such as National Debtline and Business Debtline, the better.”

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