Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make requirements in respect of the use of force and forcible entry by bailiffs; to make provision for the reference to court of certain cases involving vulnerable clients; and for connected purposes.
The recession of the past 18 months has painfully demonstrated the precariousness of many people’s financial situation. Debt and debt recovery action have become a reality for ever larger numbers of people, and the arrival of a bailiff is, for many of those people, the ultimate trauma and humiliation. Indeed, we know of cases in which people have had heart attacks when the bailiffs have arrived. The mental and physical stress that people undergo is one of the worst things that will ever happen to them in their life.
Of course, bailiffs and debt recovery mechanisms have to be used. There are always people who abuse trust, neglect their finances and refuse to engage with their creditors, and, ultimately, they must pay an appropriate price. Indeed, in my constituency role, some examples have been brought to my attention whereby bailiffs have intervened with their clients and been helpful in the extreme. They have been informative and sympathetic, and they have helped people with their predicament. Yet the truth is that many of those subject to such enforcement action are desperate and vulnerable people, and many are also victims of error. For them, even the actions of bailiffs who behave entirely reasonably—and they do not always do that—are disproportionate and excessive.
As I do more and more work with constituents who owe money and I learn more about the process of debt recovery and the enforcement of fines, it has become clear to me that we have got the balance wrong, and that we need to review urgently the position that we are in. We must certainly not, in any circumstances, think of escalating the powers available to bailiffs, and the Government should rethink their approach to regulation.
The bailiff at the door has been an image in literature for many years; it was a common motif in Dickens novels—but it is not a rare visitation on the feckless and the spendthrift, but an occurrence of staggering frequency. In my local authority alone, and in respect of just one debt—arrears of council tax—more than 13,000 cases ended up in the hands of bailiffs over a three-year period. The council has stated that 9 per cent. of council tax accounts—almost one in 10—end up in enforcement action. That is a staggering proportion.
What does it mean to be on the receiving end of such action? It means fear and trauma for people, particularly children. I have heard of moving cases in which children have refused to leave the house or have insisted on having the lights out at home because they are so frightened of a bailiff coming and seizing their television or computer. Being on the receiving end also means an escalation of the original debt, which simply compounds the problems that caused the financial crisis in the first place. Only last week I had to intervene in the case of a single parent with three children, one of whom is disabled. Her parking fine, about which I was making representations, had escalated from an original £60 to £700 by the time the bailiffs arrived.
Another constituent wrote to tell me that she had two sets of bailiffs chasing the same debt. Payments had been made to and acknowledged by the council, but did not then appear on the system. She wrote:
“This has left me in a desperate state—each party refers me to the other, the fees are ever increasing and two companies are threatening the removal of goods for the same amount.”
Some people are the victims of mistaken identity, while others are the victims of identity fraud. I have had cases in which action has been taken against one person because of another person’s criminality. The point is that there is a lack of proportionality in the response, given the likelihood of those at the receiving end being vulnerable, or victims of mistaken identity.
The representations that I seek to make to Ministers through the Bill are threefold. The power of forcible entry into a person’s home and the power for bailiffs even to use force against debtors are far too extreme to be given to civilian enforcement officers. The balance has been tilted too far against the householder’s right to be secure from trespass into their home. The present position overturns a long-standing common law tradition, by which a bailiff peacefully entering a property could not be prevented from going about his or her task. The emphasis was very much on an acceptance of that right in certain cases, but obviously the tradition stopped short of forcible entry.
The powers taken by the Government in the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 have not been brought into effect by regulation, and we await the regulations that will implement them. However, I believe that it is now clear that such powers should be repealed. Their excessive harshness should not be left on the statute book, even with an indication that the Government do not intend to implement them at present. The powers should be removed entirely.
Of course, the power to enter domestic premises forcibly to enforce the collection of criminal fines is already legal, and that too is creating appalling distress for many vulnerable households. Many of the criminal fines are levied on people on low incomes for offences such as the non-payment of TV licences, fare dodging and truancy. These are indeed offences, and it is only right that if an offence is deemed to have occurred, a penalty must be applied. However, the issue here, too, is one of proportionality, in terms of the sums involved and the manner of the enforcement deployed.
I also seek a statutory procedure requiring bailiffs to return cases involving vulnerable and impoverished debtors to the courts or the creditors, and powers to allow people subject to any bailiff action to apply to the courts for any bailiff warrant to be suspended—something that is missing from the 2007 Act. At present, that recourse is available only to people subject to county court bailiff warrants. People subject to bailiff warrants who have not been subject to county court applications have to rely on the good will and discretion of the creditor.
Some bailiffs and courts rely on case law, which holds that a distress warrant cannot be withdrawn once it has been issued. That directly contradicts the national standards for enforcement agents, which suggests a procedure enabling the bailiff to return cases of vulnerable fine defaulters to the court. The procedure to bypass this anomaly recommended by the Ministry of Justice is to write a letter to the court asking for a re-hearing of the case. In practice, however, neither bailiffs nor fine defaulters seem to know this, and disproportionate fines are being paid by benefit claimants and other low-income groups, intensifying the poverty that pushed many of them into debt in the first place. My Bill would clear up the anomaly by enabling bailiffs to return vulnerable cases to the courts and creditors for reconsideration.
Finally, we need a statutory provision for bailiffs to accept “affordable payments”, with a definition of what that might mean in practice, so that before goods are seized or payment in full is demanded, an assessment is made of what can practically be afforded, at least in a single payment. By way of illustration, one of my constituents wrote to me a few weeks ago in the following terms:
“I received a letter on the 10th of January notifying me that the bailiffs were to visit my house that same day, with regards to £191 arrears of Council Tax. I explained to someone in their office that I was not aware of that debt as I did not live at that address anymore. I made an arrangement to pay the money I did owe in instalments, the last of which—£63—was due on Easter Monday. I had no money at all, and called their office to make an arrangement. They said that unless I paid £195 today the bailiffs would come and carry my goods. I requested him to take the payment of £63 which clears my account, but he said the bailiffs will still come and carry my goods because I made the payment late and incurred a charge of £131!”
This treatment of people simply will not do.
My purpose today is not to put bailiffs in the firing line: some are good, some are bad, but all are operating in a framework that is not as it should be. Likewise, I am not singling out my own council, Westminster. Although I think that it makes too liberal a use of bailiffs, and it has certainly not developed the comprehensive advice and debt service that the local population needs, I do not think that it is uniquely bad. Indeed, I would commend officers in the finance department for the quality of service that they have offered to me in helping to deal with many of the difficult cases that I put to them. Nevertheless, we do have a grave problem with debt and debt recovery services, with disproportionately harsh penalties being applied to hundreds of thousands—if not millions, over years—of some of the most vulnerable people in the country. I believe that they need greater protection, and above all, to be freed from the fear of the implementation of the excessively harsh powers held in reserve in the legislation.
Question put and agreed to.
That Ms Karen Buck, Martin Salter, Fiona Mactaggart, Mr. Gary Streeter, Dr. Alan Whitehead, Clive Efford, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Bob Russell, Mr. Andy Slaughter, Mr. Andrew Love and Mr. David Winnick present the Bill.
Ms Karen Buck accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October, and to be printed (Bill 102).