Bailiffs were commissioned more than 6,000 times in the space of a year to recover debts on behalf of Lancashire County Council.
The figure emerged at a meeting of the authority which heard claims that some cases had been mishandled.
But council leader Geoff Driver rejected the criticism and said there was “absolutely no evidence” of any wrongdoing by the companies which the council uses.
Labour opposition member, Lorraine Beavers, told councillors about an elderly couple in her Fleetwood East division who were visited by bailiffs after the debt from an unpaid parking fine of £80 mounted to more than £400.
“The couple had appealed against the original penalty and thought that it was still under investigation, because they believed they had not received any correspondence from this council to inform them otherwise.
“Last year, the bailiffs arrived at their front door - the couple were expecting a decorator...and invited the bailiff in.
“The husband is being treated for terminal cancer and, after gaining entry by, in my opinion, dishonest means, the bailiffs then demanded the sum of £400. The couple were horrified and under the stress of having belongings taken away paid what I think is an extortionate sum,” County Cllr Beavers said.
However, County Cllr Driver told her that she was “sensationalising a problem that doesn’t exist”.
“The reason that £80 became £435 was that for two months those people had ignored letters from the council and from the bailiffs - who are obliged, in law, to inform [residents] that their debt has been handed to them. So they might have been expecting the decorator, but they had also been informed that the bailiff would be calling if they didn’t pay the debt.
“In all cases we use bailiffs as a last resort and there’s absolutely no concrete evidence that any bailiffs engaged by this council have acted outside the guidance and the law,” he added, promising to investigate personally if any proof was presented.
But the meeting heard that, in the Fleetwood case, County Hall had paid the couple compensation.
Labour’s Gillian Oliver - who was presenting a motion calling for bailiffs used by the council to “know the law” and for the establishment of an independent regulator - said the council should monitor the track record of the firms which it uses.
“Would we care to record the complaints we receive with the same efficiency that goes into commissioning bailiffs?” County Cllr Oliver asked.
She also cited a case in which a bailiff had spoken to a neighbour about a debtor's case.
And Green Party member Gina Dowding said cases where confusion had arisen about the status of debts were not uncommon.
“There is a situation where people think they are in correspondence with the council and therefore that [proceedings] have halted - [but they are] under a false impression. That might be their fault, but it seems to be happening quite a lot,” she said.
But cabinet member for highways, Keith Iddon, told councillors he was confident that the authority “follows every procedure and sends every letter that should be sent”.
“[Bailiffs] are governed by rules and regulations and there is a paper trail of letters that were sent. Some people say, ‘I never had it’ - but, unfortunately, I can’t prove you have and you can’t prove that you haven’t.
“We are [inspected] on this - people come in and look at what we do,” County Cllr Iddon said.
County Cllr Oliver’s motion was defeated.
ROW ABOUT A REGULATOR
Councillors could not agree over whether an independent regulator for bailiffs actually exists.
Labour called for the creation of a regulatory body, but several cabinet members branded the move unnecessary. Council leader Geoff Driver said there was ”already an independent association”.
Complaints about bailiffs can be directed to the the Civil Enforcement Association - a trade body for the profession. The organisation has produced a code of conduct and good practice guide, which it says is designed to “maintain exceptional standards”.
But the charity the Money Advice Trust told the local democracy service that there is not a wholly independent regulator of the sector.
Jane Tully, director of external affairs at the Money Advice Trust, said:
“In 2016/17, councils in England and Wales referred 2.3 million debts to bailiffs in England and Wales. At National Debtline we hear on a daily basis the impact bailiff use has on people’s financial and emotional wellbeing - 83 percent of our callers surveyed who had experienced bailiff action reported a negative impact on their wellbeing.
“We are calling on the Ministry of Justice to take action against the widespread poor behaviour of the bailiff industry by introducing independent regulation and a free and independent complaints mechanism. Councils themselves have an important role to play by ensuring bailiffs are only ever used as a last resort.”
FACTS AND STATS
2.2 million - number of people contacted by bailiffs (2016-2018)
850,000 - number of people who claim that the enforcement officers broke the rules (2016-2018)
37 percent - proportion of people contacted by bailiffs who say they exoperienced some kind of intiidation.
Source: Citizens Advice