Brassed off about bailiffs

Some movies scenes you never forget: the shower scene in Psycho, which had me checking behind the shower curtain for years; the opening of Jaws, which made a generation terrified to get in the swimming pool; Bobbie’s father walking through the steam in The Railway Children that still makes me cry and want to give my dad a hug; the heartbreaking sequence of the girl’s red coat in Schindler’s List.

Another I remember for its poignancy, emphasised by haunting brass band music, is the scene in Brassed Off where the bailiffs strip a mother and her children of their possessions, leaving just one chair.  It not only pulled at the heart strings, to me, recently graduated and determined to make the world a better place, it was symbolic of everything that was wrong with Thatcher’s Britain.

If the return of David Bowie isn’t enough to convince you that we are in some way reliving that most brash and irresponsible of decades then perhaps the return of the bailiffs will.  Deep cuts in housing benefit will not only force a mass exodus to where rents are ‘affordable’ (according to one estimate this means Middlesbrough), they mean more families will have virtually nothing to live on once they’ve paid the rent.

You can bet paying the council tax is going to be fairly low on the list of priorities when both the electricity meter and the children need feeding.  An increase in defaults, coupled with the squeeze on local authority budgets, means councils are not only more likely to take robust steps to recover unpaid bills but increasingly forced to outsource debt collection.

According to National Debtline, there has already been a huge rise in the use of  bailiffs, who are sent to enforce 4 million court orders and warrants each year.  As if this isn’t bad enough, charities fear they are increasingly likely to resort to brutal and unlawful tactics to recover debts.

Citizens Advice recorded 24,698 problems with bailiffs in 2011/12, of which the vast proportion were about the enforcement of council tax arrears.  One in five of those complainants were disabled, a quarter single parents and one in three was surviving on an income of less than £400 a month. 

In one case, a disabled woman in Coventry was sent ten threatening letters in two days demanding payment of £3,000 in debts plus £425 to cover the cost of bailiff visits even though she had already arranged to pay back in instalments.  In another, a woman recovering from cancer and dependant on social services hid in a park all day as bailiffs tried to enter her house.

You’d think, given the vulnerability of the people bailiffs have to deal with, there would be clear and robust regulation of the industry.  In fact, the framework governing these debt-enforcement officers is a 700-year-old hotchpotch of legislation.  It’s really more of a mess than a framework despite, or perhaps because of, tinkering by successive governments. 

There are county court bailiffs and high court enforcement officers, certified bailiffs and private non-certified bailiffs.  On the whole they should only use peaceful forms of entry, but sometimes they can break in.  They can seize goods, but not all goods.  Their fees and charges vary according to the debt owed and the organisation they are working for.  It must be as much of a nightmare to train one as it is for someone to know their rights when confronted by someone trying to take their TV away.

In February 2012, the government published a consultation paper outlining reform.  Nearly a year on nothing seems to have happened.  It may not be the sexiest of policy areas, but given that more and more people are likely to find themselves at the mercy of debt collectors the government really should bump it up the to-do list.

Only this week the Ministry of Justice expressed its ‘disappointment’ at an amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill passed by peers in December that would extend the Legal Ombudsman’s jurisdiction to cover bailiffs.  There are technical reasons why this might not work (there is, for example, no service relationship between a bailiff and the debtor) but it has focused attention on the government’s considerable foot dragging.  

I am fairly cynical about businesses that profit from human misery (two of the biggest bailiff firms, both owned by Capita, reported profits of £5.9m and £1.76m in 2011), and equally suspicious when an industry calls for its own regulation.  Nevertheless it does make you sit up and take notice when private bailiffs themselves start arguing for reform, even if it is just to make it easier to make small talk at parties.

It is extraordinary, given the government’s own admission that the present law is ‘complex, unclear and confusing’ and its acceptance that there needs to be more protection against aggressive bailiffs, that we are still waiting for something to happen.  More worrying is that ministers seem to have concluded before the consultation started that independent regulation was unnecessary. 

Equally alarming is that, even though the government’s aim is to ‘restore balance to the system...improve clarity for both debtors and creditors and strengthen protection for vulnerable people’, it has proposed increasing the fees for bailiffs enforcing council tax debts from £42.50 to over £300.  I fail to see how this helps anyone in financial dire straits.

Of course, sorting out the bailiffs, and the councils that can also often be found wanting (such as one that sent a court commons and threatened to seize the home possessions of a cancer patient who had missed just two council tax payments) won’t solve the underlying problem of indebtedness. 

Unfortunately, with legal aid no longer available for welfare advice and the effective cut to benefit payments many more people are likely to find they don't even have a brass farthing.

Posted in: justice system

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