Leading Article: Peter Lilley's repo men

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The Independent Online
The word "bailiff" has always had a particularly nasty connotation in English culture. It calls to mind an insensitive brute, charged by a callous authority with the task of throwing the poor and desperate out of their own houses. To liberals everywhere the news - as revealed in this newspaper today - that the Government plans to use private firms of bailiffs to collect money wrongly paid by (or claimed from) the Department of Social Security will cause alarm. Daily Express readers, however, will probably rejoice at exactly the same news, believing that at long last something is being done about the scroungers.

The problem that the Government is trying to address is certainly a big one. We have all heard about the gang frauds and seen Peter Lilley wave aloft the social security smart card that he hopes will help to suppress them. But a lot of the money is lost in more straightforward ways: claimants whose circumstances improve but who fail to advise the DSS, or where the DSS itself has simply miscalculated and paid too much. It is the job of recovering this overpayment that, in the first instance, is to be "market tested" - ie, piloted in the private sector.

In practice, this means handing over nearly 4,000 cases to each of two private debt recovery firms and evaluating how they do. So chaps whose expertise has been gained in the debt and repossession business will now be let loose on those who owe the state money. This approach is probably right - but the pilot must be handled with enormous care and subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny. There is, after all, no absolute reason why - given that such debt must be recovered - an efficient and responsible private operation should not be employed to do it. The existence of competition in this field will probably drive up recovery rates and drive down costs. Nor does the idea of a pilot necessarily suggest (as the CPSA, the civil servants' trade union,claims) a lack of ministerial confidence in the market testing idea. Piloting is a far more sensible thing to do than rushing headlong into privatisation - or, indeed, than simply maintaining the status quo.

But those who are employed to act on the state's behalf - particularly in an area populated both by the criminal and the genuinely unfortunate - must exercise the most careful discretion. As outlined in the memorandum written by John Coyle, boss of the Benefits Agency's debt recovery section, this discretion encompasses both style and substance. Confidentiality must be observed - despite the immense temptations to make use of information gleaned during recovery operations. Sensitivity must be employed in approaching different kinds of households, many of them troubled. These are not necessarily qualities that are linked in the public mind with the debt enforcers of documentary and news story.

The experience of the recent past, with agencies such as the Child Support Agency, Group 4 and others - while it does not support the claim that such activities must always be carried out directly by government civil servants - does indicate just how easily public confidence can be lost by clumsy or inept actions and how long it takes to regain that confidence.

And we do not wish to be told (should it all go horribly wrong) that government ministers cannot be held responsible for it because they were only involved in setting the policy.