Councils concerned at heavy-handed tactics

HORROR stories about bailiffs are legion: the bailiffs sent in to recover 4p of outstanding poll tax; a golden diamond ring seized and sold for pounds 14 despite having been valued at pounds 140; a pounds 700 car sold for pounds 20; and many examples of the use of heavy-handed tactics and threats to obtain money or goods.

Mike and Sheila Barton, who own a general store in Bristol, are taking legal action against bailiffs working for Bristol City Council who emptied most of the contents of their shop into black plastic bags over non-payment of pounds 733 business rate.

But Mr Barton had already reached an 11th-hour agreement with the council to pay the debt in instalments. The goods were returned some hours later and dumped in the middle of the shop. Ice cream left behind when the fridge was taken had melted. A council spokesman said: 'It appears the goods should not have been taken away.'

Such cases have led Bristol City Council to give notice to the firm of private bailiffs it employs that it is terminating its contract.

Some councils have managed without employing firms of private bailiffs. A spokesman for Nottingham City Council said using their own staff meant debtors could often be given help and advice rather than see their goods taken away. But Leeds, Manchester and Darlington have all increased the number of bailiffs they use. Manchester uses three firms, hoping the competition will ensure high standards of conduct.

Both the National Consumer Council and the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux have been highly critical of the way private bailiffs operate. They believe all bailiffs should be professionally qualified, all charges should be subject to statute, and that the list of goods which cannot be seized should be updated.

The Lord Chancellor's consultation document was regarded generally as disappointing.

A spokeswoman for the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux said: 'The review is not going to look at the place of bailiffs in the enforcement process. The CAB service has already pointed out the many difficulties and anxieties caused by the continued use of private bailiffs. They are expensive, intimidating and, in many cases, unnecessary. People also have very few ways of complaining about bad practice and the current law does not protect them.'