The Government must immediately stop all bailiff doorstep visits to prevent serious risks to public health, a coalition of charities has warned.

Taking Control, a group campaigning for regulation of the bailiff industry, is urging the government to extend the suspension of bailiff enforcement of rental evictions (announced on Friday 8th January) to include a suspension of bailiff visits for debt enforcement, as the pandemic enters its most dangerous phase.

In March last year, the government stopped bailiff enforcement visits, highlighting how risks of poor practice “could endanger the health of both enforcement agents and debtors.” However, visits (but not entry to homes) were allowed to resume in August and are currently still permitted. With senior government figures saying we’re approaching the most dangerous phase of the pandemic, the suspension of bailiff visits urgently needs to be reintroduced.

Since visits resumed in August, Taking Control partners have seen concerning cases of aggressive and intimidating behaviour from bailiffs. These worrying findings validate the government’s previous concerns about the risks of poor practice. This cannot be allowed to continue during a national lockdown.

Phil Andrew, Chief Exective of StepChange, said “At a time when coronavirus transmission is out of control, it is unconscionable that bailiffs should continue to be allowed to make in-person visits to people’s homes. The government’s move to stop bailiffs enforcing evictions was an appropriate response in the midst of this public health crisis. Bailiffs visiting people homes to collect debts also carries significant risks and should be suspended during the current lockdown.”

“Enforcement will still be able to continue on the phone or through correspondence, but the risks of infections would be removed, and households would be protected from unreasonable financial demands and large additional enforcement costs at a time of national crisis.’

“Coronavirus-related problem debt has nearly doubled since March and with England entering another tough national lockdown forcing businesses to shut, people need support rather than enforcement to deal with their debts. We understand the need to plug gaps in finances, but this must not come at the expense of people’s safety or making debt problems harder to deal with.”

Joanna Elson CBE, Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust, said “As things stand, a voluntary measure is all that is in place to stop bailiffs entering properties during this latest lockdown – when we are in the midst of a health crisis this not acceptable. As was the case back in March last year, the government needs to go further by suspending bailiff visits completely. At a time when the risk to public health is so high, a ban on bailiff visits is needed urgently to protect both bailiffs and people in debt.”

Responding to calls by debt advisers for a suspension on enforcement visits on the basis of health risks, Russell Hamblin-Boone, CEO of the Civil Enforcement Association, said “We recognise this is an incredibly difficult time for families and individuals struggling with debt and the health and well-being of customers and staff alike is our primary concern. With councils facing income losses of £9bn this year and a funding gap of £3bn, it is vital that they are able to recover outstanding debt to pay for essential frontline services that support vulnerable people.”

“That is why guidelines to ensure a safe and responsible resumption of some enforcement activity were drawn up in consultation with local authorities and Government, and are regularly reviewed by the Ministry of Justice. All visits are contactless, recorded on body-worn video and agents do not enter people’s homes and must maintain social distancing. We do not visit without contacting people in advance. If this is considered to be a health risk, the government would be forced to restrict delivery drivers and couriers, tradesmen and the many other people our agents report seeing visiting and entering homes. We will continue to keep the matter under review and will always follow the advice of public health experts.”