A LOCAL authority is to review its collection of debts amid concerns over the government allowing the reintroduction of bailiff enforcement for debts such as over council tax or council house rent arrears.

A meeting of Darlington Borough Council heard after a five-month suspension due to lockdown, bailiffs, working for Equita and acting on behalf of the authority, were attempting to gain entry to the homes of residents who for many different reasons owed the council money.

While debt charities have warned of a surge in cases of debt as bailiffs resume collections on the condition they “avoid unduly raising their voice”, Labour councillor Cyndi Hughes told the meeting the council had ensured the collection of council tax remained a high priority during the Covid-19 pandemic.

She said it was to be welcomed that the authority had overseen an extra £1 million to support residents, but found it “deeply troubling” that the government move on August 24 had prioritised reintroducing bailiff enforcement for debts over helping households hit by lockdown.

The Park East ward member said: “Government should be showing the way on enlightened debt practices but instead has fallen further behind the harm prevention approaches required of private sector lenders.

“Many of us are still waiting for the improvements in council tax collection and bailiff regulation promised last year. What people in hardship need is help, not draconian enforcement.”

She called on the council to review arrangements for debt collection, especially when it involved residents with mental health issues or other vulnerabilities.

The authority’s resources cabinet member Councillor Charles Johnson said he had “sympathies with everything Cllr Hughes had said”.

He said a meeting was being arranged with the authority’s debt team to fully understand how the council’s debt process works, from receiving an indication of debt to taking cases to court to writing off irrecoverable money.

Cllr Johnson said: “Allowing debts to accrue and writing them off is a rather strange thing to do because it gives us no gain whatsoever.”

He said councillors would be presented with the findings of a joint investigation into the issue he would carry out with health and housing cabinet member Councillor Kevin Nicholson and economy and resources scrutiny committee chairman Councillor Scott Durham.

Earlier this month Cllr Johnson had raised concerns after it emerged the local authority had written off debts such as unpaid council tax and council house rent totalling more than £2m for the last financial year – the equivalent of it receiving 1,111 fewer band D council tax payments.

The council’s cabinet saw calls for an explanation as to why losses to the public purse had soared by almost £600,000 in a year.