A DEBT support charity has criticised Scots councils' intimidating tactics in collecting council tax as the proportion of Scots with arrears has doubled in five years.

A study by StepChange Debt Charity Scotland says councils are using "tough threatening action" against people with council tax debts debts and it’s affecting their health.

In a survey, more  than two-thirds (70%) of their Scots clients with council tax arrears reported an increase in stress and anxiety.

And the charity said only seven per cent reported that local authorites were recommending that they seek debt advice to tackle their council tax arrears.

And the charity says that more than two-thirds of clients who contacted their local authority "received a tough demand or threat of enforcement action".

Since 2010, the proportion of their clients with council tax arrears has doubled, from 18 per cent to 36 per cent.

The amount owed in arrears has also increased 43% over the same period, from £1,130 in 2010 to £1,615 in 2015.

The charity, whose 2015 study analysed responses from 300 clients across Scotland, has called for a "more responsible" approach to arrears collection saying the council tax system is "failing to take enough account of affordability or ability to repay arrears".

It said it defined responsible debt collection as situations where enforcement agencies collect debts at an affordable rate for the individual household, based on an objective budgetary standard.

The charity said: "Many are, however, unable to afford their essential living costs and therefore cannot pay their council tax bill. Therefore, the current system does not allow a distinction between ‘can’t pay’ and ‘won’t pay’."

They suggest that local authorities are better informed about the costs of tough enforcement and that they should be "more strongly obliged" through regulation and supervision to take a more "balanced and fair approach".

Sharon Bell, head of StepChange Debt Charity Scotland, said: “The sharp rise in clients coming to StepChange Debt Charity with council tax and other priority arrears is of great concern to us. Council tax arrears are among the fastest growing that the charity has recorded in the past five years and it is clear that thousands of Scots are struggling to make key household bills.

“Our latest research offers a vital insight into the scale of the problem in Scotland. The current system of council tax arrears collections isn’t working for hard-up families, struggling to make ends meet."

She said clients complain that local authorities are using enforcement agencies that are "bullying" those in debt into paying.

“Local authorities must be better informed about the impact that their actions have on indebted clients," she said. "Tough action harms those who cannot afford to pay and can cause people to fall into further financial difficulty. We need a more proportional and fair system in Scotland to ensure we’re not punishing struggling families.”

A Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) spokesman questioned the debt charity's figures saying: "Scotland's councils actively work with debt agencies to support people before they get into arrears in the first place and do all within their powers to help those who find themselves in arrears with realistic repayment plans.

"The timeframe referred to from 2010 to 2015/16 was the period in which major welfare reform and changes to benefits was undertaken by the Government.  This would undoubtedly have an impact on a number of people's ability to pay bills.

" Council tax has been frozen for the past nine years, so this is not a new year on year additional pressure.

"Also in this particular period there has been much more publicity around managing debts and active campaigns by government around debt management.   With more awareness  This would lead to more clients, but as I say councils do all that they can firstly to prevent and secondly to offer reasonable support."