Households have fallen behind on essential bills such as council tax and utilities by an estimated £18.9 billion, according to Citizens Advice.
The charity made the calculation as it said it received a cry for help with bailiff issues once every three minutes last year typically. It is calling for stronger regulation of bailiffs and said it has seen a 24% rise in related problems since 2014.
Citizens Advice said it is concerned that aggressive tactics are leading to further debt and mental health problems. It said falling behind with household bills can have particularly severe consequences – such as having essential services cut off or losing a home.
The charity said people with household bill debt were more likely to be out of full-time employment and around a third (34%) had a mental health problem.
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Families are living in fear of a visit from the bailiffs, and small missed bills can skyrocket through excessive enforcement fees.” She said an independent bailiff regulator should be introduced “to fix this broken system”.
In one case, Citizens Advice helped a retired couple who had fallen behind on some of their essential bills and owed £700 in council tax. It said the couple are now afraid to open their front door after bailiffs visited to collect the debt.
In July, MPs sitting on the Treasury Committee said the debt collection practices of public authorities have been described as “worst in class”, with debts often pursued over-zealously and with routine recourse to bailiffs.
The committee said previously: “This approach risks driving the most financially vulnerable people into further difficulty. The public sector should raise its standards to the level of industry best practice.”
Richard Watts, chairman of the Local Government Association’s resources board, said: “Councils understand the pressures some households are under and will support people who are in financial difficulty wherever possible.”
He continued: “No council wants to have to debt collect from its residents, particularly from people on low incomes, but local authorities have a duty to their residents to collect taxes which fund essential services, such as protecting vulnerable children, caring for the elderly, collecting bins, and keeping roads maintained. It’s essential that vital services are protected and that these funds are collected.
Estimated household debt
Here is how the £18.9 billion calculation adds up according to Citizens Advice, which has tried to build a picture of the scale of the problem of household bill debt in the UK.
- Tax credit overpayments, £7.47 billion
- Council tax, £2.84 billion
- Benefit overpayments, £2.66 billion
- Water, £2.20 billion
- Rent arrears, £1.42 billion
- Electricity and gas, £1.09 billion
- Telecoms, £630 million
- Fines, fixed penalties, compensation orders, £610 million
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“The LGA is working with councils, the Centre for Credit and Money Advice Service to help improve local commissioning of financial support and debt advice and, alongside the Citizens Advice Bureau, has developed a joint council tax protocol to support good practice in debt collection.
“Anyone having trouble paying their council bills should get in touch with their local authority for financial help and advice.”