BAILIFFS have been sent to more than 10,000 homes across Worcestershire over the last year to collect debts owed to councils, it has emerged.

Debt experts have sounded ominous warnings about a "ticking timebomb" of unpaid bills after shock data showed significant increases in the number of visits.

In Worcester alone, the city council sent 4,173 debts to bailiffs in 12 months, which includes a staggering 38 per cent leap in council tax referrals since 2012.

The figure for the whole county was 10,299, a rise of 18 per cent in two years which included 2,854 in Wychavon and 1,023 in the Wyre Forest.

Although most of it is down to council tax the data for 2014/15 includes all debts owed by the public including parking fines, housing benefit fraud, business rates or any other rents.

The spike follows several years of sanctions on benefits including the bedroom tax, which has hit thousands of households hard.

Council chiefs insisted last night that they only call in bailiffs as a last resort, saying they have a responsibility to all taxpayers to chase up old debts.

But experts say they are concerned about the increasing use of bailiffs, with 2.1 million visits taking place during 2014/15 on the instruction of councils.

We can also reveal how in 2014/15, 714 Worcestershire people called the UK's National Debtline to seek help.

Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs the phone line, said: "Councils in Worcestershire and across the country are facing significant funding pressures and they of course have a duty to collect what they're owed.

"The use of bailiffs, however remains too high.

"On the front line of debt advice, we know sending bailiffs in can deepen debt problems rather than solve them.

"And it can also have a severe impact on the well-being of people who are often already in a vulnerable situation.

"Our research shows councils who use bailiffs the most are actually less effective at collecting council tax arrears."

She said the rises around the country was evidence of "serious problems".

A spokesman for Worcester City Council said: "Unpaid bills drive up costs for those who do pay, so we always urge residents to settle as soon as possible.

"Council tax pays for essential public services and it is our duty to provide those services as efficiently as possible.

"The use of bailiffs is a last resort for the recovery of debt and we always encourage people who are struggling to pay to contact us so we can agree a payment plan."

The authority also said parking fines were the second most popular unpaid bill after council tax.

In Worcester some 97.6 per cent of council tax due from householders was collected in 2014/15, while in Wychavon it was 98.8 per cent.

Jack Hegarty, managing director of Wychavon District Council, said: “We know times are tough for some of our residents which is why we are committed to doing all we can to support them.

"We helped more than 300 people through our welfare assistance scheme in 2014/15 through the allocation of vouchers to buy food, goods or other essentials.

"Together with Worcestershire County Council we have made another £98,000 available for this scheme this financial year.

“Another £50,000 we made available for those facing severe hardship following changes to the council tax support scheme which benefited 500 people and we also spent £93,000 to support those in need to pay their rent and other housing costs.

“We only ever use bailiffs as a last resort after all other options have been exhausted and I would urge anyone struggling to pay their council tax or business rates to get in touch with us as soon as possible to see if there are ways we can help."

The 10,299 bailiff call-outs around Worcestershire included 1,794 in Redditch and 455 in Bromsgrove, with Malvern being the only district council to not respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

* Back in April we revealed how 4,000 Worcester people had been sent court summons for unpaid council tax - see HERE.