A pensioner marched to the post office to withdraw £500 and a gig-economy motorbike courier driven to suicide are among those targeted by rule-breaking bailiffs, MPs heard.
Ruthless enforcement agents called at the 77-year-old Midlands pensioner’s home last year and made her fear her son, who no longer lived with her, could face jail if she refused to pay his debt.
Labour MP Emma Reynolds raised the woman’s plight during a debate on bailiffs in Westminster Hall amid calls for tougher regulation.
MPs also heard about Jerome Rogers, a 20-year-old who took his own life in 2017 after two £60 traffic fines spiralled into a debt of more than £1,000 because sky-high enforcement fees were piled on.
Bailiffs also clamped Rogers’ only means of income – his motorbike.
Reynolds, who represents Wolverhampton North East, said a disabled constituent alerted her to the scale of rule-breaking bailiffs last year.
The woman, who Reynolds did not name, faced a fine because her disability badge was out of date and she was moved from Disability Living Allowance to the Personal Independence Payment.
Bailiffs should have recognised her as vulnerable but instead forced their way in, said Reynolds.
“Let’s just imagine for a moment being in her shoes,” she said. “You and your partner are just getting up.
“You hear a knock at the door. Your partner goes to answer it. You hear loud voices, then feet on the stairs.
“A total stranger strides into your bedroom. You are absolutely terrified. The first thing he does is pick up your purse and take out all the cash.
“You think you are being burgled but in fact you are not, you are being visited by bailiffs.”
Rogers faced the £1,000+ debt after bailiffs Newlyn HQ refused him any affordable payment plan and the fee structure meant there was “virtually no cap” on what he was charged.
Had Camden council offered him a payment plan of £10-per-week before bailiffs visited, he could have pay off £60 fines in three months, MPs heard.
“Jerome was a young man with plenty to live for when he took his own life,” said shadow justice minister Gloria de Piero.
“It seems he felt he just could not go on face of the distress and despair after months of interactions with bailiffs.
“Looking at his story, it is striking how unfair and pointless his treatment was. He was struggling with debt, he was trying to get out of it but, my god, the odds were stacked against him.”
Other bailiffs were attempting “humiliation in front of neighbours” to force people to pay, said Reynolds, who related the story of a different couple.
“They tried to push their way into my house, saying they had a right to do so,” the MP said she was told.
“When I asked to see the court papers, the bailiff said, you already have them and he would only discuss them inside the house.
“He then started shouting so other people, including my neighbours, could hear him. This was obviously meant to embarrass and intimidate us.”
Turning to the case of the 77-year-old woman, Reynolds said bailiffs had again targeted a vulnerable household to recover a debt which was actually her son’s.
She said: “The bailiffs told her that if she didn’t pay her son would go to prison. She was marched to the post office where she withdrew £500.
“His mum was 73 at the time. There are countless examples of this bad practice and they come from all over the country.”
She was marched to the post office where she withdrew £500. His mum was 73 at the time. There are countless examples of this bad practice and they come from all over the countryEmma Reynolds, Labour MP for Wolverhampton North East
Reynolds said she has often felt “even as an MP powerless” to take on bailiffs, as the complaints procedure often came down to the debtor’s words against the bailiffs’.
Short of taking a bailiff to court, people have no other way of securing compensation, says Reynolds.
“And the bailiffs know this. They know that most people in debt aren’t going to have the money to take them to court.”
There have been 56 complaints in court since 2014 reforms despite bad practice believed to be widespread.
It comes as calls intensified for the government to introduce tougher legislation.
The regulatory trade body, the Civil Enforcement Association, stipulates in its code of conduct that bailiffs must be “professional, ethical, polite, honest and non-threatening”.
But Labour MP Rachel Reeves said most people who came to her described bailiffs with the “exact opposite” behaviours.
A letter by Reeves, who is chair of the business, energy and industrial strategy committee, was sent to justice secretary David Gauke the same day as the debate, calling for an independent regulator to enforce and set rules for bailiffs.
It has cross-party support, including from Tory former education secretary Nicky Morgan, former Lib Dem health minister Norman Lamb and Kevin Hollinrake, private parliamentary secretary to environment secretary Michael Gove.
The Full Text Of The Letter To Justice Secretary David Gauke
Tory MP John Howell, meanwhile, said the debate was “timely” and that the CEA was “not independent” and “no sanctions” were available to debtors being hunted by bailiffs breaking the rules.
“The system of regulation that we have at the moment is in effect self-regulation or pretty much no regulation,” he said.
He suggested using alternative dispute resolution – the system in place for rail tickets and late trains.
It comes after household debt reached record levels in 2016, according to research by the TUC.
A report by Citizens Advice and StepChange last year found that bailiffs were increasingly pushing people into intense stress, anxiety and financial hardship.
Their research, which was published as the government opened a consultation on the issue last year, found that a third (850,000) of the 2.2 million people contacted by a bailiff in the last two years saw them pushing the legal limits – such as by forcing entry into a home, removing goods needed for work and refusing to accept a reasonable payment plan.
Meanwhile, the CEA received 255 complaints in 2016, but did not strip any bailiff of powers.
The government has said it is consulting on how best to regulate bailiffs and will be taking evidence until mid-February.
Justice minister Lucy Frazer also paid tribute to how Jerome Roger’s family had contributed to the debate.
She added the government was increasing money for free debt advice and had extended the ‘breathing space’ scheme to 60 days.