Merthyr Tydfil council used bailiffs to collect debts from the equivalent of one in five of the borough’s properties – the highest rate of any council outside London, figures obtained by a charity show.
The Valleys council referred bailiffs to 6,064 debts in the past year, the equivalent of 22.8% of Merthyr Tydfil’s 26,550 residential properties.
The statistics were collected by The Money Advice Trust, which sent Freedom of Information requests to all 374 local authorities in England and Wales.
The debt charity found councils across England and Wales referred debts to bailiffs on 1.8m occasions and is calling on local authorities to be more responsible in managing their debt collection.
Cardiff council referred debts to bailiffs in 12,943 cases in the past 12 months, the highest number of the 22 councils in Wales.
Of these, 11,707 debts related to homes, amounting to 7.8% of the capital’s residential properties. The remaining 1,236 referrals related to businesses, representing 10.4% of the city’s business properties.
Merthyr Tydfil council had the second highest number of bailiff instructions in Wales – but by far the highest when compared to the total number of properties under its authority.
A Merthyr Tydfil council spokeswoman said: “The council recognises that the figures quoted reflect the high proportion of defaulting charge payers within the county borough and the financial difficulties faced by customers in the current economic climate.
“However, the council has a statutory duty to collect council tax for the services it provides and makes every effort to collect all outstanding balances as legislation allows, therefore minimising the impact on those charge payers who do pay.
“Prior to an account being passed to the bailiff, the customer would have received five separate items of correspondence, with each of these stages providing them with opportunity to engage with the council and make an arrangement to pay without recourse to bailiff action.
“Any customers experiencing this type of financial difficulty is urged to contact the council to discuss their individual circumstances on 01685 724555.”
The next highest in Wales was Rhondda Cynon Taf (5,742 bailiff instructions), Gwynedd (5,097) and Carmarthenshire (4,816). Ceredigion was the lowest with 879 cases.
Birmingham council (the largest local authority in the UK) referred debts to bailiffs on 82,329 occasions, equivalent to 17% of its properties.
The London Borough of Newham referred 55,652 cases to bailiffs, equivalent to nearly half of the total properties under its authority.
Money Advice Trust said local authorities most commonly refer council tax arrears, business rate arrears and parking fines to bailiffs for collection.
The charity’s chief executive Joanna Elson said: “These figures make clear that something has to change.
“It is not economically or socially responsible for local authorities to continue to use bailiffs so frequently. Our experience through National Debtline shows us first-hand how bailiffs can deepen debt problems, rather than solve them.
“Local authorities seem to be assuming that anyone not paying debts is a ‘won’t pay’, rather than a ‘can’t pay’.
“In today’s economy, with real incomes having fallen consistently for many years, more and more people are falling into the ‘can’t pay’ bracket – sending the bailiffs in to collect these debts can be very destructive, both financially and psychologically.
“This is a problem with a clear solution. The Local Government Association has supported a protocol, established by Citizens Advice, which makes clear how authorities should handle collection of council tax arrears. Authorities which have signed up to the protocol have maintained healthy collection rates.
“We firmly encourage all local authorities to consider their debt collection practices, especially following the abolition of national council tax Benefit and the introduction of localised council tax support.”
A Welsh Local Government Association Spokesperson said: “Local councils have a clear responsibility to all taxpayers to collect taxes so that essential everyday services can be delivered and maintained. In 2011-12, local authorities across Wales collected £1.1bn in council tax, or 96.7% of the total council tax bill, which means that £84m that could have been used to provide services to local communities remains in arrears.
“The use of bailiffs will always be a last resort with a series of letters and warnings first being provided in line with clearly set procedures. Councils understand that many households face severe financial challenges and every effort will be made to work with residents long before bailiffs become involved.
“Anyone experiencing trouble with paying their council bills can get in touch with their local authority for financial help and advice. Every local council offers a broad range of support for people facing genuine difficulties paying their bills, which can include setting up flexible payment plans or guiding people through the process of applying for financial aid.”
Cardiff council has been asked to comment.
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