Debt charities say the government is putting people at risk after bailiffs were given the go-ahead on Monday to resume residential visits.
But bailiffs say that they have an important role, which protects funding for frontline services.
After a five-month suspension, bailiffs- also known as civil enforcement officers- are again able to follow up on unpaid bills such as council tax from private homes.
They will be expected to operate under new government guidelines to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission through collections. .
Among other measures, the guidelines suggest that enforcement officers should avoid shouting to lower the risk of transmitting COVID-19.
They will also be expected to socially distance while on collection and have been instructed to delay collections from homes where residents display possible COVID-19 symptoms, such as coughing.
However, several charities say that it is too early to resume collections due to concerns over health and the financial impact of COVID-19.
Citizens Advice reported last week that the people most vulnerable to the virus, who have been shielding at home, are more likely to be in debt as a result of the pandemic.
One in five people who are at 'increased risk' are behind on their bills and debts, compared to just one in twenty among the general population.
This rushed and premature return to bailiff activity puts people at risk and will make debts harder to repay. We would also question, while still in the midst of the crisis, whether bailiff visits are a useful way to deal with arrears from vulnerable households.said director of external affairs at StepChange Debt Charity, Richard Lane.
On average, local councils get around 52% of their revenue from council tax. The rest comes from a combination of business rates and grants from central government.
However, due to Whitehall cutbacks, these have shrunk by an average of 38% in real terms since 2009. This means that council tax has become an increasingly important source of income, especially in the most deprived parts of the country.
Councils serving poorer districts, such as many London boroughs and inner cities, have been hardest hit by the cutbacks because more of their income used to come from central government grants.
Chief executive of the Civil Enforcement Association Russell Hamblin-Boone argued that councils could not afford to delay in resuming collections:
The overwhelming majority of people pay their council tax on time because they recognise non-payment is unfair and puts vital public services at risk. Councils face a deepening financial crisis because of increased costs and lost revenue during the lockdown, so it is important that civil enforcement work can resume recovering much-needed funding for frontline servicesthey said
For now, the debts being collected are likely to have already existed before the start of lockdown.
Bailiffs usually have 12 months to collect a debt from the time it is referred to them before their license expires. Any debts which expired during the lockdown, when bailiff collections were suspended, have automatically been extended for another 12 months.
Citizens Advice debt expert Lorraine Charlton has this advice for people facing collections:
All bailiffs should send you a letter before they visit, to check if you’re more vulnerable because of coronavirus. They should also follow government guidance on social distancing. Many bailiffs have also made a voluntary commitment to take into account vulnerability or financial hardship caused by the coronavirus and refer people to debt advisors in those circumstances. If they’re collecting debts owed to your local council, court fines or child maintenance they should give you 30 days’ notice before they visit. They shouldn’t enter your home to take your goods - they should only talk to you, collect money or give you documents.said Lorraine Charlton from Citizens Advice
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