Local councils have called in bailiffs an “excessive” 1.8m times in the last year to collect debts on their behalf, according to the Money Advice Trust.
The figure comes after the debt advice charity submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all 374 local authorities in England and Wales.
The charity called on councils to be more responsible in managing their debt collection.
But councils said bailiffs were only ever used as a “last resort”.
The charity said the most common debts referred by local authorities were council tax arrears, business rate arrears and parking fines.
Around 98% of councils responded to the FOI request and the charity found an “extreme variation” as to how frequently councils addressed the issue.
Birmingham, the UK’s largest local authority, referred debts on 82,329 occasions in the last 12 months – the highest number of any council.
To measure which councils used bailiffs most frequently, regardless of their size, the charity compared the number of times they were instructed as a percentage of the total number of properties in a local authority.
It found that although Birmingham had the highest number of referrals, this amounted to 17% of the city’s total number of properties.
The London borough of Newham instructed bailiffs 55,652 times – nearly 50% of the total number of properties.
The charity says this does not mean half of Newham’s residents have had debts passed to bailiffs, as many of the debts relate to parking fines and these could apply to those who live outside the borough.
An individual may be subject to more than one referral to bailiffs, or there may be more than one individual in a household who has had their debt passed on.
Newham mayor Robin Wales said that two thirds of its parking fines were issued to people who lived outside the borough.
He told the BBC: “We only use bailiffs as a last resort. Nobody wants to use them. They’re expensive to use.
“And it depends on the nature of the debt you’ve got. If it’s housing or council tax, we’ll work with people and we’ll try and get them to come up with an offer to pay it over a period.”
But Money Advice Trust chief executive Joanna Elson said the figures showed councils need to change their behaviour.
“One point eight million debt referrals to bailiffs is clearly excessive,” she said.
“Councils offer a broad range of support to people facing genuine difficulties paying their bills ”
“Local authorities seem to be assuming that anyone not paying debts is a ‘won’t pay’, rather than a ‘can’t pay’.”
The Citizens Advice Bureau, which found there had been a 38% increase in complaints about private bailiffs over the last five years, said it was concerned that councils were too quick to pass debts on.
And it said it had evidence that private bailiffs “frequently overstate their powers, act aggressively and bump up debts by levying excessive and illegal fees and charges”.
Both charities want more councils to follow guidelines set up by Citizens Advice and backed by the Local Government Association (LGA).
The LGA said it was “misleading and irresponsible” to suggest that councils used bailiffs as anything other than a “last resort”.
It said its members “offer a broad range of support to people facing genuine difficulties paying their bills.
“This can include setting up flexible payment plans or guiding people through the process of applying for financial help.”
The government is expected to bring in new laws next year to tackle aggressive bailiffs.