Rogue bailiffs collecting unpaid council tax on behalf of local authorities are using brutal tactics against vulnerable people, campaigners say.
Charities fear that complaints about heavy-handed and unlawful tactics used by council-contracted bailiffs could soar as the Government cuts £500m from council tax benefits next year.
Citizens Advice (CAB) recorded 24,698 problems with bailiffs in 2011/12 of which nearly 22,431 were about the enforcement of council tax arrears.
The 28 per cent squeeze on local authority budgets has seen more outsourcing of debt recovery. Private bailiffs are now sent two million times a year to recover money ranging from parking fines to unpaid council tax.
This autumn the Government is set to reveal its plans to reform an activity governed by laws dating back to medieval times. Ministers are under pressure to stem the rising toll of complaints in which rogue bailiffs are accused of harassment and intimidation, threatening to seize goods to which they are not entitled and overstating their powers to enter premises.
In one instance a pregnant woman had her door kicked in. She claims to have been struck on the leg and hip over an unpaid £58 debt.
In April 2011 the Ombudsman also criticised Slough Borough Council over its failure to act when one of its private bailiffs threatened to charge £230 and seize a doormat after being refused entry to premises.
Figures from the CAB reveal that one in five of those who complained about the action of bailiffs were disabled, while a quarter were single parents and nearly one in three was surviving on an income of less than £400 a month.
The charity's chief executive, Gillian Guy, said proper sanctions must be imposed to end unscrupulous practices before the impact of next year's benefit cuts are felt.
The Local Government Association estimates that more than two million people will pay an average £247 more in council tax in 2013-14.
"Rogue bailiffs are terrifying people across the country who have got into debt with their council tax," said Ms Guy. "More must be done to protect people from aggressive bailiffs and to support them with their debts rather than intimidate them.
There is also mounting concern over the profits made by some of the leading bailiff firms. It is claimed that they are incentivised by the current system of debtor-paid visit fees not to seek a negotiated settlement.
Two of the biggest operators in the field are Equita and Ross & Roberts both owned by the outsourcing giant Capita. Equita reported operating profits of £5.69m for 2011 while Ross & Roberts made £1.76m over the same period.
Dr Steven Everson, director general of the civil enforcement association Civea, which represents the industry, denied that excessive profits were being made by his members. They recover £700m on behalf of local and national government each year. He called for a simplification of the law but rejected attempts to impose a statutory regulatory body which he said would result in added costs to debtors.
Chris Richards of Council Tax Advisers, which helps those in debt, is proposing a new system in which debtors pay a one-off administration fee after negotiating a settlement by telephone.
One in five people who had complained about the action of the bailiffs was disabled
'I wanted to pay but they would not negotiate'
Lola Fayemi, from south London, built up a debt of £2,500 in unpaid council tax when she was pregnant with her son.
Me and forms really don't get on and life was really chaotic. I assumed I didn't have to pay anything because I was on working tax credits. I didn't get any letters and forgot about it, so it just built up. I was really shaken when I got to the stage where they said this is what you owe. I wanted to pay it back at a few hundred a month but they would not negotiate. Then I received a bailiff letter which said I had five days to pay. It felt threatening to me. I thought people would come knocking at my door.
‘When I rang up, the bailiffs would be obnoxious’
Chris, aged 55, from Kent owed a total of £1,700
I had lost my mother and was suffering from depression. My wife had been diagnosed with a lifelong condition. The council kept coming up with unreasonable payment plans. In the end the bailiffs came to the door. I just said have a look around and make a list of the stuff you want – take what you will. My wife was really angry. I didn't expect that sort of thing to happen to me. Whenever I rang up the bailiffs I would get someone who was really obnoxious who wouldn't give you any information. They wouldn't tell you a breakdown of the charges. The debt never came down: it just kept going up every month.