When the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced their decision to look at the behaviour of bailiffs last April, they said it would address “lingering concerns over aggressive behaviour by minority of bailiffs”. New research published today by Citizens Advice and StepChange suggests this was staggering understatement of the problem.
Bailiffs have significant power over people in debt, who include some of the most vulnerable in society. They can enter your house, go through your drawers, take your possessions. But with this power comes very little oversight.
In 2014 the MoJ rightly brought in a package of rules designed to curb intimidating and aggressive bailiff behaviour. Then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said “We are stamping out bad practice and making sure bailiffs play by the rules. Those who don’t will be banned.”
But these rules have never been enforced, making them effectively meaningless. Citizens Advice has seen a 24% increase in bailiff problems since the 2014 regulations came into effect.
That’s why a coalition of debt and anti-poverty charities came together last year under the banner of ‘Taking Control’ to campaign for meaningful and lasting reform. They are being joined by a growing number of MPs from across the House who agree that the only solution is an independent regulator.
There’s a real urgency around this.
According to new polling by YouGov for Citizens Advice and StepChange, nearly a third of the 2.2million people who were contacted by a bailiff in the last two years saw rules being broken.That’s the equivalent of one person every minute being forced to deal with a rule-breaking bailiff.
Two in five people contacted by bailiffs experienced aggression or intimidation. One in 10 had goods they needed for work removed, for example tools or a vehicle.Both of these are in clear violation of the 2014 rules.
These figures make it clear that the problem is not one of a few bad apples. The bailiff industry is out of control, and is causing misery for thousands of people up and down the country every day.
Meanwhile people affected by debt collectors who flout the rules, such as forcing entry or taking away the tools of someone’s trade and their means to make a living, face an opaque and confusing complaints system.
The relevant route for people’s complaints are often dependent on their specific circumstances and the type of bailiff that they are dealing with. Often, the only independent way for them to hold bailiffs to account is to take them to court. For people facing financial hardship and the additional stress of aggressive enforcement, this can be an almost impossible system to navigate.
There is no reasonable explanation as to why an industry which carries out the sensitive work that bailiffs do, and which has so many interactions with people in financial difficulty - many of whom are vulnerable - operates without an independent regulator.
The problems associated with the bailiff industry are well-established and yet still remain unresolved. And with people across the country increasingly struggling to cover their household bills, these are problems that will not be going away anytime soon.
More than six months after it was announced, the MoJ’s ‘call for action’ has still not materialised, and Justice Minister Lucy Frazer’s promise that “aggressive tactics will not be tolerated” has not been met. If the Tories really are on the side of ordinary people, as they profess to be, Ministers need to get a grip this issue now - before hundreds of thousands more people suffer at the hands of an industry that’s out of control.
Rachel Reeves is the Labour MP for Leeds West and chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee