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Bailiffs worry poor householders

PUBLISHED: 11:29 16 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:50 07 September 2010

THOUSANDS of vulnerable residents are being targeted by heavy-handed bailiffs sent by Westminster Council to recover council tax arrears. Young families, pensioners and people out of work - who are already struggling to pay their bills - are among those b

THOUSANDS of vulnerable residents are being targeted by heavy-handed bailiffs sent by Westminster Council to recover council tax arrears.

Young families, pensioners and people out of work - who are already struggling to pay their bills - are among those being pushed further into debt by the visits.

Labour MP for Regent's Park and Kensington North, Karen Buck, says many of her constituents have reported traumatic experiences with bailiffs coming to their doorstep and forcing entry.

She said: "While enforcement measures must be taken, the sheer scale of such tough action shows that something is going wrong," she said.

"And the appalling administration of housing benefit and council tax benefit in Westminster over many years will have meant many wholly innocent people have been caught in this nightmare.

"Bailiff visits are both expensive to administer and hugely traumatic for households on the receiving end - many of whom are in financial difficulties and need financial advice and debt management rather than having their goods seized."

In 2008, Westminster used bailiffs in 13,470 cases to recoup unpaid council tax, figures obtained by the Lib Dems under Freedom of Information legislation reveal.

Only three other UK local authorities of the 171 contacted by the Lib Dems used bailiffs more often.

In comparison, neighbouring borough Camden took bailiff action in just 4,000 cases.

Rev Paul Nicolson, chairman of Zacchaeus 2000, a charity helping people in financial difficulty, warned that penalising people in this way could have devastating consequences - even suicide in the worst cases.

"The problem with all councils - not just Westminster - is they don't know the circumstances of the people they send the bailiffs round to," he said.

But Westminster says less than nine per cent of their 160,000 council tax accounts were subject to bailiff action between 2007 and 2008.

Finance boss Cllr Melvyn Caplan said: "We have a duty to those who promptly pay their council tax to pursue those who don't.

"We understand, however, that in the tough economic climate, some residents are struggling to make ends meet and we are here to provide support and advice.

"Anyone who can't pay their council tax should contact us as soon as possible to find out what assistance is available or any benefits they may be entitled to.

"We only consider bailiff action as a last resort for collecting unpaid council tax.

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