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Volume 454: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2006

The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill, which is currently under consideration by their lordships, contains measures that will require all private bailiffs to hold a certificate issued by a county court judge. Certificates will only be issued subject to certain conditions, including a criminal record check.

In their 2003 White Paper “Effective Enforcement”, the Government committed themselves to the proper regulation of bailiffs. The reforms in the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill are welcome, but they fall short of that target. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the present certification system does not tackle misrepresentation, the harassment and intimidation of clients, false threats of imprisonment and serious overcharging—all of which are practised by a significant minority of bailiffs? Will she, even at this late stage, toughen up what is a rather weak piece of legislation?

All the things that my hon. Friend mentioned would be taken into consideration by a county court judge, and I cannot imagine that a certificate would be issued to any bailiff who had been engaged in such activity. The activities of bailiffs are a mish-mash of provisions going back many centuries, and it is sensible to ensure that they are up to date, uniform and under the supervision of a judge. We can discus whether the Bill goes far enough when it comes to this House, but I think that it is a useful step forward.

One purpose of the law in a constitutional democracy is to protect the citizen from abuse of power by public bureaucracies or private bullies. A constituent who visited my surgery on Friday was extremely shocked and angry to have received a visit from a group of bailiffs whom she regarded as complete thugs and who presented her with a series of extortionate charges for which no lawful authority appeared to exist. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that that is reprehensible? Is it not also reprehensible that my constituent can get no answer from the court, the police or the bailiff other than a reference to one of the other parties? She is being given the runaround, and it will not do.

I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would send me details of the case, as I shall certainly look into it. Thugs and extortionate demands have no place in the bailiff system, and he is right to say that it is the duty of the justice system and the Government to protect the citizen. That is why we are going to bring in regulation for bailiffs, and I remind him that the criminal law—from which bailiffs are not immune—is also available as back-up. May I just say at this point that the duty of the state is not only to protect citizens but to ensure that, when the county courts or magistrates courts order that a fine or a debt should be paid or that a victim should be compensated, that should happen—within the law, subject to proper regulation, and without any criminal offences being committed. That is what we are aiming for.

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will know that the sort of incidents that have been referred to are commonplace and that Citizens Advice has a long list of examples. I am sure that many hon. Members have seen examples. Will she consider making the law stronger? I appreciate that she intends to change things, but we need stronger regulation on charging and on misrepresentation of powers, which bailiffs regularly get away with.

I take my hon. Friend’s point. I pay tribute to Citizens Advice. The last thing that we want is for people who are not paying fines because they simply cannot afford them to be put under pressure, especially if they are vulnerable for any reason. We absolutely do not want to do that. We are working with Citizens Advice to examine what is going on in the system. I offer the House the notion that some people do not want to pay their fines. Some people will fight against paying compensation to victims. Other people will hide behind the legitimate grievances that some people have about overbearing and unacceptable behaviour, which we intend to regulate. People will come along to our surgeries and say that they, too, have been the victims of bailiffs. We have to ensure that the courts make the right orders, that the orders are enforced, that the bailiffs act according to the law and that justice is done by fines being paid and compensation being paid to victims.

Many of us share the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) in our constituencies. People are concerned about this. The Minister says that the Government intend to regulate. Given that the Bill will increase the powers of entry for bailiffs and give them the right to seize cash, when do the Government intend to regulate along the lines of the White Paper “Effective Enforcement”? When are we going to have a date for that?

The Bill is under consideration in their lordships’ House. After that, the Bill will come to this House and the hon. Gentleman will be able to scrutinise it. Bailiffs will not have the power to enter any home or property under the Bill unless they are authorised by the court. One of the problems is that people are unclear as to what the provisions are because they are such a complex network. The Bill will make it clear that no bailiff has the right to enter premises without the order of the court. Hon. Members will have the opportunity to discuss that issue in the proceedings on the Bill.