Fears of a "bailiff boom" as soaring numbers of people struggle to cope with council tax benefit cuts have been raised by a debt advice charity.
Citizens Advice warned that "many more" vulnerable people were in danger of being pushed into the hands of bailiffs, which it said often overstated their powers, acted aggressively and piled on excessive fees and charges.
The charity was seeing evidence that the number of people worried about paying their council tax had "rocketed" since Government welfare reforms were introduced last month.
Some 37,000 people consulted its online advice pages about council tax in April - representing an 87% increase compared with the same month last year. The charity said that anecdotally, increasing numbers of people were coming through the doors of some of its bureaux who were struggling to pay their council tax, although it was too early to give figures at this stage.
Council tax benefit was replaced by council tax support last month, which allows councils in England to run their own schemes but on 10% less funding than they had previously. Citizens Advice warned that the changes risked stoking a "boom time for bailiffs". It was braced for an influx of people being chased by bailiffs after being pushed into arrears by the changes and urged councils to use them only as a "last resort".
Citizens Advice said it had seen a 38% increase in complaints about private bailiffs over the last five years. Almost nine in 10 bailiff problems the charity deals with relate to private bailiffs, who collect debts such as council tax and parking penalties. One third of the 60,000-plus complaints the charity received in the last financial year about bailiffs were related to people with council tax debts.
The charity's chief executive, Gillian Guy, said: "Bailiffs will see their profits rise at the expense of hard-pressed households. We're concerned that changes to council tax benefit will mean more people will end up in debt because they can't pay their bill and have the bailiff knocking at the door. The number of people worried about council tax is up 87% since the changes came in, and this will climb even higher as more people find it difficult to cope with the costs. Bailiffs often overstate their powers, deliberately frighten debtors and charge extortionate fees."
Citizens Advice wants councils to sign up to a "good practice" document which was drawn up jointly with the Local Government Association (LGA) and aims to strengthen co-operation between councils and debt advice bodies and lessen the chances of councils turning to bailiffs.
Local government minister Brandon Lewis said: "Spending on council tax benefit doubled under the last administration, costing taxpayers £4 billion a year - equivalent to almost £180 a year per household. Welfare reform is vital to tackle the budget deficit. Our reforms to localise council tax support now give councils stronger incentives to support local firms, cut fraud, promote local enterprise and get people into work. We are ending the 'something for nothing' culture and making work pay. Councils have set up their own council tax support schemes and should have taken into account the impact on vulnerable people. For those facing genuine hardship, there are free advice services who can offer help and support, and many councils have put in place hardship funds to provide financial assistance to people in difficult circumstances."
Mr Lewis said it is important for councils to be sympathetic to those in "genuine hardship" and take proportionate enforcement action and not overuse bailiffs. He said: "The coalition Government has taken action to rein in aggressive bailiffs."