William Eichler 14 March 2017

Debt charities call on councils to ‘stamp out’ bad practices by bailiffs

Local authorities have key role in ‘stamping out’ bad debt collection practices by bailiffs by ensuring fair treatment, charities say.

A new report published today by a coalition of debt charities has revealed changes to the law covering bailiffs introduced in April 2014 are failing to protect people in financial difficulty from unfair treatment.

It also discovered local authorities - the largest user of bailiffs - passed 2.1 million debts to bailiffs in 2014/15. This represented a rise of 16% on two years previously.

The research, documented in Taking Control, found bailiffs regularly used intimidating behaviour, failed to accept affordable payment offers, and failed to take account of vulnerable clients.

Nearly a quarter (24%) of 1,400 people who had been visited by a bailiff in the last six months had tried to arrange repayment by phone but found the bailiff insisted on visiting anyway. According to the charities, the current fee structure incentivises bailiffs to visit the home.

Around a fifth (17%) of respondents also said they were not contacted by the bailiff before they visited.

These are both examples of non-compliance with the 2014 regulations.

One in six clients surveyed had been visited by bailiffs in the previous year and half of them reported being treated unfairly. 16% said they felt forced to take out more credit to deal with bailiffs’ demands.

Citizens Advice helped people with 82,000 issues related to bailiff action - with 57,000 issues related to bailiff enforcement of council tax debt alone.

‘Harsh tactics by bailiffs can cause severe distress and push people even further into debt,’ said Citizens Advice chief executive, Gillian Guy.

‘Last year, Citizens Advice helped people with over 80,000 bailiff problems - with the majority related to enforcement action on council tax debts.

‘Local authorities have a key role to play in stamping out bad practices - by treating people in arrears fairly and ensuring bailiffs are only ever used as a last resort.’

Responding to the report, Cllr Claire Kober, chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) resources board, said: ‘The LGA has worked closely with Citizens Advice on a protocol for councils using bailiffs when recovering debts. It includes the need for fair collection and enforcement policies and the ability for councils to take back cases involving vulnerable families.’

‘We agree that bailiffs should only ever be used as a last resort,’ she continued.

‘Before the situation reaches a stage where bailiffs are involved several letters should have been written, people should have been encouraged to apply for financial support, and efforts should be made to arrange new payment plans or to attach the debt to a salary.’

Responding to the report, Vernon Phillips the director general of the Civil Enforcement Association (CIVEA), said: 'The latest survey of local authorities shows that recent government reforms have improved the enforcement system for everyone: 96% of respondents said they believe the new regulatory regime has improved standards and professionalism.

'It’s clear from the most recent local authority survey evidence that the system is working better than before the new regulations came into force, but we are keen to ensure any continuing concerns are tackled effectively.

'We are currently in conversation with the advice sector organisations, and we are hoping that they will be able to share specific evidence with us of where practice can be improved, so that we can work with them to do that.'

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