TEST Valley Borough Council sent bailiffs to collect hundreds more debts last year than two years previously, a new report reveals.

The Money Advice Trust says bailiffs should only be called in as a last resort, and is urging the Government to implement a national strategy to reduce their use across England and Wales.

Freedom of Information requests by the Money Advice Trust, which operates the National Debtline, show that Test Valley Borough Council sent 2,530 debts to bailiffs in 2018-19.

That's 679 more than in 2016-17 – a rise of 37%.

Bailiffs, also known as enforcement agents, visit properties to remove and sell goods for the repayment of certain debts, including council tax arrears, parking notices and others owed to the council.

The Money Advice Trust's Stop the Knock 2019 report revealed a 7% increase in bailiff use across England and Wales over the last two years, with 2.6 million cases in 2018-19 – driven by a 21% rise in the number of parking debts referred.

Joanna Elson, chief executive of the charity, said: "Bailiff action is harmful to people in debt, and these findings should concern us all.

"Reforming the law around bailiff action itself is vital if we are to protect people from harm. Of equal importance, however, is reducing the number of debts that are being passed to bailiffs in the first place.

"Bailiff action should only ever be used as a last resort, and can be avoided by early intervention, providing free debt advice, and agreeing affordable repayment arrangements.

"We will continue to work constructively with councils to help them reduce their bailiff use, and to impress upon central government the urgent need for the national policy changes that are required to quicken the pace of change."

The Money Advice Trust's research also looked at how local authorities manage debt collection, and found that 99% of councils, including Test Valley Borough Council, point residents in financial difficulty in the direction of free debt advice.

The council does not employ the Standard Financial Statement, a tool designed by debt and credit experts to objectively assess the financial situation of individuals.

The charity also advises local authorities to have official strategies to support people from at-risk or low-income groups who are in debt, but Test Valley Borough Council does not have such a policy in place.

Further debt collection practices mentioned in the report include exempting recipients of Council Tax Support from bailiff action, and signing the Citizens' Advice Council Tax Protocol, which aims to prevent people from getting into debt.

But in Test Valley, council tax support recipients are not exempted from bailiff action, and the council has not signed up to the protocol.

The Local Government Association argued that councils "have a duty to their residents" to collect unpaid debts, but said it was working with Citizens Advice to develop fairer recovery and enforcement policies, including exemptions for vulnerable families.

Richard Watts, chairman of the LGA's resources board, said: "We realise that times are tough, and councils do their best to protect those affected the most, whether through introducing hardship funds, or taking a sympathetic and constructive approach to the way we collect unpaid tax.

"Anyone having trouble paying their council bills should get in touch with their local authority for financial help and advice."