Bailiffs are profiting at the expense of struggling families because of cuts to council tax benefits, according to the Citizens Advice service.
The debt advice charity also 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.
It claimed 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 the charity’s online advice pages about council tax in April – representing an 87% increase compared with the same month last year.
It said that anecdotally it was seeing increasing numbers of people who were struggling to pay their council tax, although it was too early to give figures at this stage.
Council tax benefit was replaced last month by council tax support, which allows councils in England to run their own schemes but on 10% less funding than they had previously.
Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently found that the changes would leave 150,000 families paying £300 more a year on average, while 1.9 million claimants who had not paid anything would now be billed an average £140-a-year.
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”.
The charity’s chief executive, Gillian Guy, said: “Bailiffs will see their profits rise at the expense of hard-pressed households.
“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.”
Local Government minister Brandon Lewis said: “Spending on council tax benefit doubled under the last administration, costing taxpayers £4bn 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.