Almost a decade of cuts to tax credits, housing and disability benefits have combined with insecure work, low wages and zero-hours contracts, along with the high cost of credit to bring family finances to breaking point.
All added up, UK households now owe an average of more than £15,000 in unsecured lending from credit card firms, banks and other forms of household debt.
Cashing in on misery, like a predator hunting its prey: the bailiffs. Unregulated, and making profits on the backs of the most vulnerable.
Of course, businesses and government have a right – and often a duty – to seek money that they are owed, especially from those who are simply refusing or making no effort to pay for products and services. But everybody should abide by a code of decency which is too often ignored and rarely enforced on rogue bailiffs. That’s where government needs to act. And urgently.
In one terrible case, a young man took his life after two unpaid £65 traffic fines that he incurred soared to debts of more than £1,000 in a matter of months as a result of bailiff charges. It was because he was inable to cope with the stress, and seeing no way to get out of his debt, after the motorbike which he needed to earn a living was clamped by bailiffs.
Every MP and councillor will be aware of complaints about bailiffs. I recently helped one of my constituents who was being pursued over a council tax debt by bailiffs who refused to accept she was repaying the money. They also refused to contact the council to confirm this.
The bailiff industry is spiralling out of control. Just as I campaigned for the successful regulation of payday lenders, I believe it is high time bailiffs are properly regulated too.
In 2014, some regulations – such as entering homes when children were present, banning visits before 6am and after 9pm and taking basic appliances like cookers – were introduced. This was intended to curb the intimidating and aggressive behaviour of rogue bailiffs, but it is clear those regulations did not go far enough.
The Leeds-based debt charity StepChange is among those highlighting the problems. The litany of complaints has included not accepting offers of payments, threatening behaviour, exorbitant fees, wrongly seizing goods and failing to obey the rules of entry.
Citizens Advice has seen a 24 per cent rise in problems with bailiffs since the 2014 regulations were introduced. According to polling, almost a third of the 2.2 million people contacted by bailiffs over a two-year period believed the rules were broken, while two in five people claimed they had experienced intimidation or aggression.
The worst elements of the bailiff industry are causing needless misery to thousands of vulnerable people who are battling to make ends meet. We must stop those rogue operators who are flouting the rules.
When I raised this issue in a House of Commons debate last year, the Government asked for evidence about some of the appalling behaviour of bailiffs ahead of a February 17 deadline.
However, it must already be clear to Ministers that they must deal with these horror stories.
The industry must be properly and independently regulated. The current set-up has badly failed thousands of people and added to their financial problems. It is not fit for purpose.
There needs to be a clear, transparent and simple way to complain when bailiffs act aggressively or break the rules.
The fees charged by bailiffs need to be restructured to encourage good practice – not just add to bailiffs’ profits.
Bailiffs should also use a consistent framework to help those in debt come up with a manageable way of meeting their debts.
There is a long list of people and organisations calling for change. They include AdviceUK, the Children’s Society, Christians Against Poverty, Citizens Advice, Community Money Advice, the Institute of Money Advisers, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, the Money Advice Trust and StepChange.
When I raised this matter in Commons, Justice Minister Lucy Frazer said it was a “matter of regret” that some bailiffs were not behaving as they should and “many members of the public did not hold them in high regard”.
That is a huge understatement about an industry which urgently needs to clean up its act, but we also need to address why debt has increased so much and families are struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table.
A decade of austerity has taken its toll and needs to end; employers must pay workers a wage they can afford to live on. Unions should be able to organise at work to get a better deal for working people.
On bailiff reform, I am working across the political parties with colleagues, including Yorkshire MP Kevin Hollinrake and Neil O’Brien from the Conservatives, and Emma Reynolds and Sarah Jones from Labour.
We will keep the pressure on the Government until we have the regulation we need to bring rogue bailiffs back into line – or to put them out of business.
Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West. She is also chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee at Parliament.