In a civilised country, nobody should fear a belligerent presence on the doorstep.
There is no excuse for the heavy handed behaviour of some bailiffs, which is leaving vulnerable people gripped by fear in their own homes. A new study reveals that one person every minute has to deal with a rule-breaking bailiffs in Britain. The Government needs to get a grip and appoint an independent regulator who can ban and prosecute bailiffs who break the law.
A graphic example of the unethical tactics employed by some bailiffs was outlined in the House of Commons.
Labour’s Emma Reynolds described how one of her constituents, who is disabled, was terrorised by bailiffs. Two men barged their way into her constituent’s house, which made the woman believe, quite reasonably, that she was being burgled.
Ms Reynolds said: “Two bailiffs aggressively entered her house without showing any ID, rummaged in her bag and took £240 out of her purse. She was made to pay another £180 on top of that. She only learned afterwards that this was due to a parking fine because her disabled badge was out of date.”
This is not an isolated case. Rule-breaking bailiffs are causing stress, anxiety and financial hardship, according to research published by Citizens Advice and StepChange.
The charities are calling for the Government to step in and regulate the industry to prevent more people suffering at the hands of debt collectors who flout the rules.
The figures reveal that one third (850,000) of the 2.2 million people contacted by a bailiff in the last two years experienced them pushing the limits of the law. Some bailiffs forced entry into a home or removed goods needed for work.
I don’t doubt that the majority of bailiffs obey the law and behave professionally. But those who don’t are causing misery to people who are often at their wits’ end. Citizens Advice found that 70 per cent of people who had been abused by a bailiff reported increased stress and anxiety. Half of the victims experienced knock-on effects on their finances, including further debts due to enforcement fees.
Many bailiffs refused to accept reasonable offers of payment. The findings suggest the Government reforms introduced in 2014 to protect people from unfair practices are not working. Since then, Citizens Advice has reported a 24 per cent rise in bailiff problems. A survey carried out by YouGov found that alarming numbers of bailiffs were threatening to break-in to a property, when they don’t have the legal right to do this.
Bailiff issues are part of a wider problem of households falling behind on essential bills. Citizens Advice estimates households have a total of £19 billion of arrears on bills such as council tax and utilities. The impact of bailiff use has also been highlighted 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 the debtor is struggling to pay.
Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves has called on the Government to appoint an independent bailiff regulator to stop abuses of justice. Justice Minister Lucy Frazer said the Government intended to launch a call for evidence before the end of the year to help protect those in debt even further, adding a regulator was “one of the matters that we will consider in due course”.
So can we expect decisive action from the Government to protect vulnerable people from bullying bailiffs? I wouldn’t hold your breath. Small firms who have been bullied by the banks have repeatedly called for tough regulatory action from the Government. Their calls for a new tribunal to assess their claims against the big banks have fallen on deaf ears.
It’s the familiar sad story; the Government is presented with proof of wrongdoing and responds with a call for more evidence. The issue is kicked into the long grass. The terrified disabled woman in Ms Reynolds’ constituency may well fear the bailiffs’ return.