Survey backs call for bailiff regulation

By agency reporter
February 16, 2019

Rule-breaking bailiffs are still not being held to account and will continue to inflict stress, anxiety and further financial hardship until the Ministry of Justice introduces independent regulation, debt charities say.

The 11 debt and mental health organisations that make up the Taking Control campaign on bailiff reform are calling on the government to establish independent regulation to clean up the industry and protect people from the harm poor debt collection practices cause. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/27509)

They have released new figures that show regulation has significant public support. National polling, commissioned by Citizens Advice and StepChange Debt Charity, reveals:

  • Eight in 10 (83 per cent) people think bailiffs should be subject to independent regulation. This equates to 39 million people in England and Wales.
  • Almost nine in 10 (86 per cent) think there should be an independent system to complain about bailiffs.

The figures were published on 15 February 2019 in a joint submission made by Taking Control to the Ministry of Justice’s call for evidence into bailiff reform.

The group says government reforms in 2014 have not improved the sector. A survey of advisers from the Taking Control organisations found they did not think bailiffs’ behaviour in terms of ‘adhering to rights of entry’ has improved since the 2014 reforms. Concerningly, more advisers think that it has got worse (37 per cent) now, than they did (16 per cent) in 2015.

Having debts collected by bailiffs is a common experience. In 2016/17, local authorities in England and Wales used bailiffs to collect debts 2.3 million times, according to research by the Money Advice Trust.

Of particular concern is how bad practice by bailiffs disproportionately affects those in vulnerable situations. Of the people Citizens Advice helped with bailiffs last year, 40 per cent had a disability or long-term health condition.

In one example, the charity helped a partially deaf man who had been contacted by a bailiff in relation to council tax arrears. When the bailiff visited they said that on their next visit they would force entry to his property despite not having a controlled goods agreement.

A further 83 per cent of National Debtline callers surveyed who had experienced bailiff action reported a negative impact on their wellbeing.

Citizens Advice alone has reported a 24 per cent rise in bailiff problems since 2014, and it remains one of the most common debt issues it helps people with. More than one in three (39 per cent) people contacted by bailiffs in the past two years witnessed a bailiff breaking the rules. Citizens Advice describes it as a widespread problem.

Since the 2014 government reforms, there have been just 56 complaints to court about bailiffs. It is unclear, of these, how many resulted in the bailiff’s certificate being revoked.

The campaign’s evidence shows that people find it difficult to report an issue and lack faith in a process where they are encouraged to complain first to the firm representing the individual bailiff.

They also say there are no effective sanctions or penalties for firms whose bailiffs break the rules. But as its evidence shows, people lack the confidence to lay a complaint:

  • Recent polling in England and Wales found three in four people (74 per cent) who experienced bailiffs breaking the rules did not complain.
  • A StepChange client survey found that, of those who felt they had been unfairly treated by bailiffs, only 15 per cent made a complaint.
  • Another StepChange survey of clients showed 29% per centhad tried to set up an affordable payment plan over the phone. However, the bailiff insisted on visiting their home, incurring larger fees.

The bailiff sector does not have the independent oversight and effective consumer protection that have been commonplace in other sectors for many years. This call for evidence is the opportunity to introduce the independent regulation the industry needs to protect vulnerable people from bad practice.

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Almost five years on from the 2014 reforms, and with mounting evidence that bailiffs continue to flout the rules, government action is long overdue. The Ministry of Justice must move to establish independent bailiff regulation to stop harm being inflicted on people, especially those in vulnerable situations due to their debt or ill health. We’re concerned that without a regulator, any attempts to improve practice in the sector will fail to protect people. They also need to create an independent complaints process, like in financial services, so complaints about bailiffs are dealt with impartially.”

Phil Andrew, Chief Executive of StepChange Debt Charity, said: “Only formal regulation can solve the problems in the bailiff sector. Complaints provide a case in point, where the complaints mechanism involves the bailiff industry’s own trade body acting as adjudicator. Just 15 per cent of StepChange clients who felt they had been unfairly treated by bailiffs have complained. That’s shocking but unsurprising, as the industry’s complaints mechanism is fragmented, opaque and can’t be trusted. Bailiff firms uphold only around one in 10 of the complaints put directly to them. By comparison, financial services firms uphold about half. Industry protectionism and self-interest are causing detriment and harm to some people who have legitimate cause for complaint about bailiffs.”

Joanna Elson, Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline and Business Debtline, said: “Bailiff reform is now urgent. It is clear that previous changes have not been successful in cleaning up this industry, and poor practice amongst bailiffs and bailiff firms continues to be widely reported.

“When bailiffs are used, it is crucial they act within the rules and that people in debt are protected. Only independent regulation and a clear complaints mechanism can bring this about. As well as regulating the bailiff industry, the government needs to take action to make sure that far fewer debts are passed to bailiffs in the first place. Local authorities, in particular, referred 2.3 million debts to bailiffs in 2016/17 in England and Wales. Councils need to do much more to help people who fall behind at a much earlier stage – and should only ever use bailiffs as a last resort.”

Bailiff issues are part of a wider problem of households falling behind on essential bills. The impact of bailiff use was highlighted in July last year by MPs on the Treasury Select Committee, who labelled government and local authorities “worst in class” for debt collection. In September, the National Audit Office said there was evidence that aggressive enforcement action is ineffective, and can be harmful in situations where people are struggling to pay.

The 11 organisations that make up the Taking Control group are calling for independent bailiff regulation that can enforce high standards in the bailiff industry.

Through the Ministry of Justice consultation on the enforcement industry which closes on  17 February, the group wants to see the introduction of independent bailiff regulation and a free, independent complaints mechanism.

* Read the report Taking Control here

* Citizens Advice https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/

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