According to Money Advice Trust, local authorities have used bailiffs on 1.8 million occasions in last 12 months. This is big business for the Bailiff companies – figures suggest that the recent combined annual income for the 5 largest Bailiff companies was in excess of £60M.
Bev Budsworth from The Debt Advisor spoke to 5 Live at midnight last night on the subject and below are her thoughts from research on the subject of Councils and the use of bailiffs.
The tactics employed by bailiffs and their charges which can be excessive have trouble advice agencies for the past 30 years and the press for reform has gathered pace in the past few years.
The last government passed The Tribunal Courts Enforcement Act in 2007 but they did not implement the section relevant to Bailiffs. In February 2012 the Coalition outlined reforms and this was followed by lengthy consultation.
In June 2013 the Community Secretary reported that he found it unacceptable for councils to employ “burly bailiffs using heavy handed tactics such as knocking down doors, making phantom visits and charging excessive fees”.
New Guidance was issued to local authorities in June setting out good practice which aimed to:-
- Stop “dodgy practices” where Town Halls collect contractual kickbacks from the Bailiff companies
- Stop charges for phantom visits. This is charging inflated fees for putting letter through a door whilst failing to engage with the individual and or try to reach a sensible payment arrangement.
- Bailiffs to provide a contact number so that the individual can get in touch and set up a payment plan
- Councils to publish their standard scale of charges on their website
- Getting councils to sign up to Good Practice Protocol
Sensible Advice if you are facing a Bailiff visit
- Don’t let the Bailiff in if you can help it. He cannot force his way in and if you are home he can only enter if allowed in. If no-one is in, he can enter through an unlocked door or open window.
- It’s really not a good idea to fail to deal with the problem as this will mean the costs will go up and eventually you could face additional action such as an “attachment of earnings order” or even bankruptcy.
- If Bailiff seizes goods, he can take them away immediately. In practice you come to an agreement which provides that the Bailiff will give you several days to raise the money and he then lists those assets he thinks are saleable and on which he can validly distrain.
- Bailiffs charge fees including to remove goods and sell them. The level of fees charged gives rise to most complaints. If you feel the fees you have been charges are excessive, it is worth seeking advice from your local CAB who may refer your complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman.
- The Bailiff cannot take goods belonging to other people although they can take goods jointly owned but must account to the other person for their share of the sale proceeds. Also cannot take rental or HP assets.
- Bailiff also cannot take tools of trade and essential household items – eg clothing and bedding
Joanna Elson from MAT believes the councils are assuming that those who can’t pay, won’t pay. Bev Budsworth states “I agree with Joanna that bailiff action can be very destructive for families who are seriously struggling and who instead need help dealing with the arrears. Council tax arrears is frequently not the only debt outstanding. My experience is that these individuals are frequently also struggling to cover just everyday living costs and they frequently resort to expensive pay day loans to bridge the gap which generally makes a tough situation much worse”.
If you are struggling with council tax arrears or debt issues, it is important to seek help early. Many councils have embraced a protocol which was introduced in 2009, which provides that all parties involved in collecting council tax exchange information and devise strategies to help vulnerable people. A number of these councils have shown that embracing the protocol helps to maintain collection rates whilst protecting the most vulnerable.