Moves afoot to put paid to UK's aggressive debt collectors
Government plans to tighten up debt-enforcement rules, says Neasa MacErlean
Friday 23 November 2012
We can all expect to hear more about bailiffs in the next few months. The Ministry of Justice is planning to reform parts of the 700-year-old framework governing these debt-enforcement officers and the 4 million court orders and warrants they enforce each year. And, concerned about the aggressive behaviour of many bailiffs, Citizens Advice is just launching a campaign to help the public protect itself.
On the Wednesday after next, Citizens Advice is briefing MPs through the All Party Parliamentary Group on debt and personal finance, about the need to introduce tougher controls than the Government appears to be preparing.
Council tax debt problems
More of us are coming into contact with bailiffs. There is a “big increase” in their use, according to National Debtline. This is correlated to the rise in council tax debt problems, as more people have difficulty paying their liabilities – and local authorities, facing their own financial pressures, take bigger steps to chase unpaid bills. The proportion of National Debtline callers who have council tax debts has risen from 8 to 20 per cent in the past eight years. New kinds of debt are also developing. For instance, Transport for London issued instructions to bailiffs 117,000 times in the year to September to chase unpaid congestion charges – although it uses bailiffs only as a “ very last resort”.
The Local Government Ombudsman does not keep statistics on complaints over bailiffs – but three of the past 10 Ombudsman decisions that appear under the heading “local taxation” refer to bailiffs and they make worrying reading.
Slough Borough Council featured twice. In one case a vulnerable, female, who had recently been treated for cancer and was dependent on social services, hid in a park all day as bailiffs tried to enter her house.
The Ombudsman ordered that her council tax debt should be written off and that she should be given an extra £250.
In the second Slough case, a bailiff seized a doormat and charged a man, who had outstanding council tax bills, £230 for the visit and seizure.
Advice worker John Kruse, author of Bailiffs: The Law and Your Rights, had been hoping to see reform of the laws a decade ago.
“The case law dates back to the 14th century and the statute law to the 13th century,” he says.
“I’m concerned about the way all private bailiffs work. They are under a lot of pressure to produce a decent profit, and the only way to do that is by squeezing the maximum amount of money out of people in debt.”
He says that there are fewer shocking tricks – like the bailiff gaining entry by climbing in an open window or a skylight – and more, like charging too much and seizing items they should not take, which are “more subtle”.
For instance, bailiffs are supposed to ignore basic furniture and vehicles which do not belong to the debtor – but Mr Kruse has frequently seen them adding such items.
In the end, he and Citizens Advice, along with other campaigners, have all but lost hope that the Government will introduce a new regulator for the industry.
The Ministry of Justice is now working on introducing some reforms, with more information coming out on this in the next few weeks and some changes being initiated in 2013.
In its consultation paper, Transforming bailiff action, in May, the Ministry of Justice accepted that the present law is “complex, unclear and confusing”, resulting in bailiffs “misrepresenting their legal authority”. The aim of the proposed reforms was stated in a way which accepted some of the current problems – “how we will provide more protection against aggressive bailiffs and encourage more flexibility in bailiff collections”.
Citizens Advice is also going to work harder to promote its code, “Collection of Council Tax arrears good practice protocol”, among local authorities.
So, whatever happens, people with debts are best advised to inform themselves of their rights if they think a bailiff might call. “Generally, people are better off not allowing the bailiffs access,” says Mr Kruse.
“They are better off sitting it out if they can because, ultimately, the debt will go back to the creditor. You may well get a better deal with the creditor, depending on the debt.”
If bailiffs are let in once for collecting other debts, they can insist on returning – so it is particularly important not to give them access at all. In certain situations – collecting unpaid fines, income tax or VAT – bailiffs can require entry to your property, whether you invite them in or not.
The best move for debtors is to negotiate with their creditors and prevent the need for bailiffs being sent out. But if bailiffs do arrive there are several sources of help (see case study, above right).
The debtor can also contact the Ombudsman after first complaining to the bailiff or the creditor.
There is also CIVEA, the Civil Enforcement Association, which handles complaints for the industry and acts as a regulator for the 1,800 bailiffs employed by its member companies. CIVEA dealt with 105 complaints in the last year, upholding them in 19 per cent of cases.
Since an independent regulator looks unlikely, CIVEA is likely to retain its current role.
Its director general, Dr Steven Everson, told The Independent: “Though the advice sector would much prefer that the industry were regulated by an independent regulator, they fail to identify the funding for such an expensive structure.
“The only source of income for enforcement companies is from the fees and charges made against debtors, and therefore, if the industry was required to pay for the regulator, ipso facto there would need to be a commensurate increase in the level of fees and charges.
There is no enthusiasm from the Government, particularly in the current economic situation, to fund such a venture. “In the absence of such an independent body, the industry is left to deal with complaints within its own resources.”
With some bailiffs still behaving so outrageously, it is somewhat surprising that the issue has not already attracted more publicity and censure.
However, this may change, particularly since the Government is currently considering putting up the statutory fees for bailiffs so that a straightforward visit might cost £230 in future. At the moment, the fee can be just £24.50.
I feared bailiff would find me in bed
National Debtline adviser Laura Wale helps those who have been visited by a bailiff. “I spoke to a woman who was upset because the bailiff had knocked at her door at a quarter to eight,” she says. “She owed £400 in Council Tax and was upset that he might have come in when she was in bed. I explained that wasn’t so.”
A bailiff collecting Council Tax could call as early as 6am but may not force an entry for this kind of liability. In this case, the woman did not let the bailiff in which gave her a better bargaining position, Ms Wale says. If she had let him in, he would have listed her property and — barring a few basics — returned to seize and sell them if she had not agreed to and fulfilled the payment offer he made her. Instead, Ms Wale advised the woman to write to the bailiff and local council, offering monthly payments of between £5 and £10, as she was on benefits. “We don’t encourage people to call bailiffs or deal with them face-to-face,” says Ms Wale, because they can take fright and agree to more than they can afford.
Useful contacts and websites:
* Citizens Advice - Collection of Council Tax arrears good practice protocol: www.citizensadvice.org.uk/print/council-tax-arrears;
* Civil Enforcement Association: www.civea.co.uk
* Government website: www.gov.uk/your-rights-bailiffs/what-you-can-do-when-a-bailiff-visits
* Local Government Ombudsman: www.lgo.org.uk; 0300 061 0614
* National Debtline: www.nationaldebtline.co.uk/england_wales/factsheet.php?page=02_bailiffs_and_council_tax; helpline 0808 808 4000
* Northern Ireland Ombudsman: www.ni-ombudsman.org.uk; 02890 233821
* Public Services Ombudsman for Wales: www.ombudsman-wales.org.uk; 0845 601 0987
* Scottish Public Services Ombudsman: www.spso.org.uk; 0800 377 7330
Investors told to travel the world in the search for higher returns
The most expensive cities in the world 2015
Pension freedoms: How to deal with cold calls from scammers
Is there a connection between luxury student accommodation and high levels of debt?
Starter home initiative is urgently needed as rents go through the roof
- 1 Video of Irish 'professional boxer' fighting Istanbul neighbourhood goes viral in Turkey
- 3 A pint of water every day is the key to losing weight, scientists say
- 4 Russia 'accidentally reveals' number of its soldiers killed in eastern Ukraine
Dresden riots: Protesters in Germany attack refugee buses shouting 'foreigners out'
France train shooting: US soldiers speak of the moment they stopped gunman and 'beat him until he was unconscious'
Labour leadership: Jeremy Corbyn accused of 'deluding' young supporters with 'claptrap'
'Women only' train carriages: Jeremy Corbyn unveils radical move to tackle public harassment
Black holes are a passage to another universe, says Stephen Hawking
Iain Duncan Smith calls for urgent ESA overhaul as part of drive to cut down welfare costs
iJobs Money & Business
£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...
£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Are you passionate about sale...
£25000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A large financial services company...
£20400 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and highly reputable organisat...
Day In a Page
This four-bedroom home has an annexe accessed from the side of the house, with potential for improvement and conversion subject to the necessary permissions.
In the heart of the hamlet of Wardley, this five-bedroom period home offers countryside views and a stylish interior, with original features and open fireplaces.
Offering countryside views and landscaped gardens, this three-bedroom Grade II-listed lodge has a spacious conservatory and a large cellar that could serve as a workshop.
Set in approximately 1.5 acres, this four-bedroom home comes with a second, detached property that's currently used as an annexe.
In the hamlet of Newchurch, this former parish church is now a four-bedroom home complete with clock tower and eyrie.
Offering scenic views from a large balcony and sun terrace, this four-bedroom home has a wraparound garden and a heated swimming pool.
Offering views across the Humber and East Yorkshire Wolds from a glass panelled balcony, this four-bedroom barn-style home befits a life of leisure.
This four-bedroom home offers versatile accommodation with annexe potential; features include a hot tub, sauna and Norwegian BBQ hut.
Well-located for schools, colleges and the town centre, this contemporary thatched cottage offers flexible living space with six bedrooms.
Built in 1907, this four-bedroom Edwardian period home has been refurbished by the current owners, retaining many original period features.
Surrounded by landscaped gardens, this five-bedroom home offers living space across three floors.
This lovely country home in Burnham Market is currently run as a popular holiday cottage, with five en suite bedrooms and colourful gardens.
This three-bedroom 17th-century former village bakery is just a few miles from the East Sussex coast.
Set on a landscaped plot, this light and airy four-bedroom home comes with a log burner in the lounge, a fitted kitchen and an open-plan ground-floor layout.
Set sail for this four-bedroom farmhouse in Cowes. With five acres of land and an indoor pool, this home oozes character. There is even potential to let a one-bedroom annexe.
Built on a former chapel site, this impressive four-bedroom home boasts balconies, stunning views and contemporary modern living.
This three-bedroom house is situated in a quiet mews and set over three floors. Features include glazed staircases and high ceilings.
A period townhouse set over four floors, this five-bedroom home was built in the 18th Century and retains many original features.
With five bedrooms, this spacious home offers beautiful gardens and modern interiors - set within the popular market town of Bingley.
A few miles from the seaside at Perranporth, this four-bedroom farmhouse sits amongst nine acres of idyllic grounds - including a lake and two barns used as holiday lets.
In the pretty market town of Bungay, this grade II-listed Mill House is arranged over four floors, offering four bedrooms and three reception areas.
This first-floor flat comes with two bedrooms, an impressive open-plan reception room and two lovely roof terraces.
This five-bedroom home comes with a range of outbuildings including a large barn which could be converted into a self-contained granny-flat or rental.
Moored at Taggs Island and reached via a pretty garden, this two-bedroom houseboat has a vaulted reception room and skylit garden studio - currently a beauty salon.
On the edge of the city, this six-bedroom home comes with an outdoor swimming pool and a large garage block that has annexe potential.
A contemporary house spread over three storeys, this three-bedroom detached home has large sliding doors that open out to the River Quaggy.
Moored in Chelsea's Cheyne Walk, this houseboat offers two double bedrooms and a teak deck that's ideal for al-fresco dining.
This former village bakery, dating back to the 17th century, is now a three-bedroom detached home just a few miles from the East Sussex coast.
On the picturesque Isle of Man, this four-bedroom character home has a ground-floor shop that's currently run as a newsagents and a flat that would make an ideal holiday let.
In a new collection of flats, this first-floor two-bedroom apartment offers ample entertaining space and a prime view of Furze Green from a private balcony.
This three-bedroom stone-built cottage currently trades as the village store with a restaurant in the annexe and family accommodation on the upper floors.
Previously two semi-detached properties, this five-bedroom home is spread over three floors with a large breakfast kitchen, orangery, office and gym on the second floor.
This five-bedroom home enjoys countryside views over the Blyth estuary to Southwold, offering flexible living space with a ground-floor annexe - ideal for use as a holiday let.
Close to the market town of Eye, this four-bedroom detached home offers a double-height living room which takes the place of the original, 19th-century, chapel nave.
Dating back to the 19th century, this four-bedroom home needs modernising. Spanning three storeys, the red-brick house has a fireplace, a small terrace and a cellar.
Just outside of Cambridge, this single-storey home offers three double bedrooms, a living room with vaulted timber ceiling and ladder steps that lead to a mezzanine study area.
This six-bedroom Georgian home is on three floors with open fireplaces, a two oven Aga, an annexe, and cottage gardens with outbuildings and a car barn.
A former coach house, Glebe Farm Stable is now a three-bedroom cottage with a double car barn, an attached office, kennels and an outbuilding that's currently used as a gym.
Located beside an impressive Victorian viaduct, this four-bedroom home has an open-plan living area that is glazed on two sides, with skylights and high ceilings.
A former furniture workshop, this three-bedroom home has high ceilings and painted brick walls, in a village setting only fifteen miles from the coast.
This five-bedroom stone townhouse features a pine staircase and an Inglenuk fireplace, double doors from the lounge give access to an enclosed courtyard.
This five-bedroom, detached home blends traditional and modern design; the sleek kitchen features a gas hob and oven set within an exposed chimney breast.
Capitalise on the fabulous views of Trevone Bay by taking two homes and creating one spacious boutique B&B. Just a cliff-top walk from Padstow.
Surrounded by woodland, this five-bedroom manor house has plenty of outdoor storage space in the form of three converted loose boxes, two smaller outhouses and a woodstore.
This six-bedroom home is set amongst three acres of grounds. Currently a large family home, Clift Hill has potential to make a B&B or countryside retreat, subject to change of use permissions.
This Grade II-listed three-bedroom home is situated on a private road, just a short walk from the sandy beaches of Frinton-on-Sea.
Less than five miles from Malmesbury, this four-bedroom cottage comes with equestrian facilities and gardens that extend to approximately three acres.
Spanning three storeys, this late-Victorian five-bedroom farmhouse is a spacious family home with a modern interior and B&B potential.
With an original church arch, this triplex one-bedroom church conversion has a light, spacious, feel and comes with a secure off-street parking space.
This recently-refurbished three-bedroom home has bi-folding doors that lead out to a decked seating area - ideal for alfresco dining this summer.