The Government should introduce new regulation for the bailiff industry ‘to stop unfit enforcement agents and companies from practicing’, MPs have said.
In a report released today the Justice Select Committee recommended body-worn cameras be made mandatory for all bailiffs who visit homes and businesses, while it also expressed surprise at the apparent under-regulation of the industry compared to other sectors.
It added that along with a regulator the current complaints system ‘is fragmented and hard to navigate, especially for vulnerable people’ and that ‘there should be an independent complaints body, to which all complaints can be escalated.’
In a report published today, the Justice Select Committee has called for a new independent complaints system and better regulation of the bailiff industry
The report comes alongside a separate call for evidence on rogue bailiffs by the Ministry of Justice, which has just closed.
Just over two months ago, 11 debt and mental health charities wrote to the Government calling for greater action in the enforcement industry, claiming 2014 reforms had failed to have an impact.
The Ministry of Justice said at the time the reforms ‘will help to clean up the industry and ensure bailiffs play by the rules’, and banned bailiffs from visiting debtors at night and from seizing property for rent arrears without first going to court. Debtors were also supposed to be given seven days’ notice.
In its report the committee said those from the enforcement industry had been strongly supportive of the 2014 reforms, saying they had provided increased clarity and transparency. There was also a ‘gulf’ and ‘a massive discrepancy’ between the numbers of complaints reported by debt advice charities and the number reported by bailiff companies, industry associations and the Local Government Ombudsman.
Bob Neil, the Conservative MP for Bromley and the chair of the Justice Select Committee
One enforcement company that worked with 165 local councils told the committee it had received only 373 complaints out of 275,000 cases last year, 48 of which were partly or fully justified. By contrast, Citizens Advice claimed 850,000 people had seen bailiffs break the rules over the last two years.
The committee concluded: ‘While there may be many reasons for this, a more clearly defined and independent complaints process would give important reassurance that all complaints will be fairly and properly investigated.
‘It would also enable much greater transparency about real numbers of justified complaints.’
It added this complaints body should oversee all complaints where the complainant had been unsuccessful in resolving their problem with the organisation for which the bailiff was working, and ‘should be very clearly set out, and have as few levels as possible so that it is easy to navigate.’
On the subject of regulation, the committee was less equivocal. It said it was ‘surprised’ bailiffs are ‘apparently so under-regulated compared with other sectors, especially given that they deal with some of the most vulnerable people in society.’
It added the existing system of individual certification of bailiffs by County Courts amounted to a ‘rubber-stamping exercise’, and that such a regulator ‘should be able to stop unfit enforcement agents and companies from practising.’
The committee said the Ministry of Justice should consult on whether the regulator needed to be a new or existing body and how to pay for it. It did caution that the enforcement industry is relatively small, consisting of around 2,500 civil enforcement agents and just over 40 High Court Enforcement Officers.
It said: ‘It is important that any new regulation function should be proportionate and not over burdensome, so as to reduce costs which might be passed on to the public purse.’
Conservative MP Bob Neill, the chair of the committee, said: ‘While there are strong differences of opinion on the effectiveness of 2014 reforms to the enforcement industry, there is consensus that there is room for improvement in the way that complaints are handled. The system is confusing, particularly for the most vulnerable people in society. Complaints are important and must be investigated properly.
‘We were surprised that no regulator is already in place. We’re calling on the Government to consult on whether new powers should sit with an existing body or a new one, and how it should be funded.
‘Debt enforcement can have a real impact on people’s lives so it is vital to ensure that the processes in place are fair and proportionate to all parties concerned.’
The Money Advice Trust’s chief executive, Joanna Elson, who gave evidence to the committee, welcomed its report. She said: ‘The time has come for the government to put an end to problems in the bailiff industry once and for all.
‘The Justice Select Committee’s endorsement of independent regulation is another sign of the growing momentum behind calls for change – and we hope Ministers will now bring forward proposals as a matter of urgency.
‘As well as independent regulation of bailiffs and a clear, independent complaints mechanism, we need to see action to reduce the use of bailiffs to collect debts in the first place.’
Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, added: ‘It’s excellent to see MPs from across all parties call for a regulator to crack down on the bailiff industry. They’ve also rightly called for a complaints process to be established so problems are dealt with independently of the bailiff industry and outside the court system.
‘Bailiffs regularly break the rules, as our evidence has proved. In the past year we’ve seen a 16 per cent increase in bailiff-related issues. All eyes will now be on the Ministry of Justice, which must introduce these reforms as a matter of urgency.’
More protection from ‘aggressive’ council tax collectors
The Government also announced it was engaging with councils, charities and debt advice organisations to improve the way council tax is collected and protect those in arrears from ‘aggressive enforcement’.
It said it wanted to bring in a system which treats people more fairly, with possible reforms including giving those in financial trouble more time to pay off arrears, improving the links between councils and the debt advice sector, and supporting ‘fairer debt intervention methods’.
Local Government minister Rishi Sunak MP said: ‘The experiences of some innovative councils show that council tax collection rates can be improved without resorting to the unfair treatment of vulnerable people.
‘That’s why I’m pushing forward work to make the council tax collection system fairer and more efficient – so people are treated with compassion while services get the funds they need.’