Citizens Advice has recently published a report, A law unto themselves – how bailiffs are breaking the rules, which claims that a bailiff is flouting regulations every minute. It believes that this is an important contribution to the Ministry of Justice’s call for evidence. It seems that Citizens Advice researchers are also a law unto themselves, which is detrimental to responsible policymaking.
The report is a key element of Citizens Advice’s contribution to the consultation. It will be accompanied by other qualitative research and anecdotal evidence.
Unfortunately, the report is heavily based on the views of just 277 people who have had contact with bailiffs in the past two years. There were around 12 million debts collected by enforcement agents in the last two years, so the report is statistically invalid and calls into question the morality of exaggerating data for the sake of a good headline.
Citizens Advice fails to make a distinction between laws that are broken and laws that people simply don’t like. For example, in the report, it is assumed that a threat to force entry to a property or to remove goods required for work purposes is breaking the regulations. That is simply incorrect and depends on the circumstances. The incidents that are reported have no context and, in my experience of adjudicating on complaints, there is always more to learn about a case before making judgements. Often debt advisers do not have the detailed knowledge to assess the validity of a complaint.
The broader context of the government’s call for evidence is that UK households are feeling the knock-on effects of the credit crunch ten years ago, which have created a perfect storm. This is made up of four issues. First, incomes are not keeping pace with living costs. Second, benefits have been cut. Third, local authorities are implementing austerity strategies to maximise recovery of debt. Fourth, people are struggling to pay priority debts, which requires a new approach to collection.
The fact is that a hard core of people either cannot or will not pay money that they owe to the councils, sometimes over many years, and this is having a knock on effect to those who subsidise the shortfall. There are highly prescriptive regulations that set out what agents can and can’t do to collect overdue taxes and court fines. In some instances, they have powers to change locks and remove hinges to force entry into someone’s home. That is the law. But anyone acting ‘illegally’ will be caught out by employers’ who monitor agents closely to ensure that local authority contracts are not put at risk by bad behaviour.
Undeniably, local authority debts are now being chased more rigorously because rightly people don’t want more cuts to their local services. That means councils are pursuing the 3% of hard to reach residents who have historic debt. Often it is an enforcement visit that allows councils to differentiate between those who need welfare support and those who are evading payments.
An enforcement visit is the last stage in a long process over several months. It is not authorised until every effort has been made to make contact through letters, emails, texts and phone calls. It’s usually at this point that people complain of harassment. Under the law, pursuing a debt like this is exempt from such charges.
This is not the first occasion I have had to take issue with the quality of Citizens Advice’s research. In the summer a highly critical press statement claimed that issues with bailiffs has increased by 24% since 2014. In fact, the number of calls to bureaux rose because since 2014 the Notice of Enforcement has actively encouraged people to get debt advice. The calls were mostly inquiries not complaints about the conduct of enforcement agents. In the same report Citizens Advice estimated that bailiffs collect £19 billion of arrears from bills such as council tax and utilities. This is another exaggeration because only around 18% of this type of debt qualifies for collection by certificated enforcement agents and, even then not all of that will be allocated.
The report published this week selectively quotes the Treasury Select Committee report on household finances, claiming that MPs labelled government and local authorities “worst in class” for debt collection. This term was used by Citizens Advice when it gave evidence to the Committee and the MPs were simply quoting it back. Similarly, the report takes the National Audit Office report on problem debt and quotes it out of context. According to Citizens Advice the report says there was evidence that aggressive enforcement action is ineffective and can be harmful in situations where the debtor is struggling to pay. This was not a comment on bailiff regulation or behaviour, but a criticism of local authority management.
Enforcement agents have a difficult job to do in challenging circumstances. Sometimes they have to take a firm approach to stop people from flouting the law. It’s not very pleasant to have someone on your doorstep giving you a final demand, but it’s not very fair that local services are shutting down because people think they don’t need to pay for their council tax or their court fines. So, when a survey of just 277 people is used to extrapolate a headline saying that enforcement agents nationally are breaking the law, I take issue with such poor quality research
We have an opportunity to make some good improvements to priority debt collection. The Ministry of Justice is conducting a fact-based policy consultation exercise. If there is any genuine evidence that agents are acting illegally then we will investigate and take the necessary action. But, if we are to continue working together to drive up industry standards, we must avoid an emotionally-charged debate based on hearsay and instead focus on robust facts and strong evidence.
Russell Hamblin-Boone, Chief Executive, The Civil Enforcement Association (CIVEA)