A CHARITY has expressed concerns about “aggressive” local councils after a surge in the use of bailiffs to collect debts.

The Money Advice Trust said bailiffs should only be used against debtors as an “absolutely last resort”.

Figures obtained from its ‘Stop the Knock’ report showed a big increase in referrals to bailiffs in some council areas, mostly for council tax debts.

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This included Darlington Borough Council where it said there had been an increase of 189 per cent since 2014/15, Durham, up 56 per cent, and Sunderland which was said to show a staggering rise of 503 per cent.

A spokeswoman for Darlington Borough Council, which instructed bailiffs to collect debts from individuals and businesses on 4,034 occasions in 2016/17, said: “Every attempt is made to work with individuals and businesses who are in debt and we will only make use of debt collection agencies when we have exhausted all other avenues.

“We have arrangements in place to support vulnerable people where necessary and we would always encourage people who are struggling financially to get in touch with us at the earliest opportunity.”

Other councils were unrepentant about their use of bailiffs and said they were obliged to chase debts on behalf of genuine rate payers who settled their bills.

Councillor Mark Robson, leader of Hambleton District Council, which saw a 19 per cent decrease in referrals between 2015/16 and 2016/17, said the authority took every step to try and recover monies unpaid.

He said: “We will pursue [debtors] and try and recover the sums where necessary.”

The Money Advice Trust said bailiff referrals in England and Wales had increased by 14 per cent from 1.8m when similar research was carried out in 2012.

Its chief executive Joanna Elson said: “It concerns us that for many people their local council is the organisation that will be the most aggressive in chasing them if they fall into financial difficulty.

“This will come as a surprise to many, but comes as no shock to those on the front line of debt advice who help people deal with these problems every day.

“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.”

It advised giving people “breathing space” to pay debts and providing “affordable and sustainable repayment arrangements”.

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “We expect councils to show sympathy for people in genuine hardship and only use bailiffs as a last resort.

“However, every penny of council tax that is not collected means a higher bill for those law-abiding citizens who do pay on time.

“To support those facing financial difficulties we’ve given councils the powers to establish their own council tax support schemes to best meet their local need.”