Councils in Dorset sent bailiffs to collect more than 4,000 debts last year, 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 Trust, which operates the National Debtline, show that Dorset County Council referred 1,752 debts to bailiffs in 2018-19 , all of them for unpaid parking fines.

Meanwhile in the same period, Weymouth and Portland Borough Council referred 1,492 debts to bailiffs, while West Dorset District Council referred 983 debts.

Those authorities were abolished as part of local government reorganisation in April with responsibilities being taken over by the new unitary Dorset Council.

Bailiffs (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 councils.

The Money Advice Trust's Stop the Knock 2019 report revealed a 7 per cent 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 per cent rise in the number of parking debts referred.

The Trust's research also looked at how local authorities manage debt collection, and found that 99 per cent of councils, including West Dorset District Council and Weymouth and Portland Borough Council, pointed residents in financial difficulty in the direction of free debt advice.

The charity also advises local authorities to have official strategies to support people from at-risk or low-income groups who are in debt – the district and borough council did have formal policies 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.

In West Dorset and Weymouth and Portland, council tax support recipients were not exempted from bailiff action, and the councils did sign up to the protocol.

Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust 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."

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.

A Dorset Council spokesman said: "There are numerous stages before the we consider sending cases to the enforcement agents, and they are only used after multiple warnings are given.

"Bailiffs are used as the last resort in the collection of penalty charge notices. Before cases are sent to the enforcement agents, motorists are notified of the charge multiple times:

* The Initial Penalty Charge Notice on the vehicle, and during this period a discounted rate of 50% is applied to the charge, and the motorist has the opportunity to challenge case.

* 28 days after the Penalty Charge Notice is issued (or 28 days after a challenge is rejected) a Notice to Owner is sent to the registered keeper of the vehicle, where the PCN is the full amount, the registered keeper can make a formal representation at this stage, and if they are not satisfied with the outcome, can take the case to the Traffic Penalty Tribunal.

* If the case has not been cancelled and payment is not received, 28 days later a Charge Certificate is sent out, challenges may not be made at this stage.

* If no payment is received from the Charge Certificate, after a further 28 days, an Order for Recovery is sent to the registered keeper of the vehicle, informing that if payment is not made, the case will be registered as a debt, and progress to the Enforcement Agents.