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Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in light of the death on 7 January of Mr Andy Miller, whether they will bring forward their draft bailiff regulations.

My Lords, the House will want to offer its condolences to Mr Miller’s family. My right honourable friend the Justice Secretary immediately ordered an urgent investigation into Mr Miller’s death. The Ministry of Justice has been working on the underlying draft regulations for the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. Prior to implementation these far-reaching reforms will require full public consultation and at least 12 months for careful preparation by the industry.

My Lords, I join the Minister in extending condolences to Mr Miller’s family. We have been waiting for these draft regulations for rather a long time. They were promised for the summer, for October and for before Christmas, and still we do not have them. Life is getting very rough out there because people are getting short of money. Bailiffs are finding it harder to extract money and we are getting a lot of cases where a serious level of distress is being caused. These are vulnerable people to whom we owe a duty, which we can exercise through these regulations. Should we not get on with it?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, who in this field of enforcement has a well deserved reputation for being at the forefront of trying to improve things. Having said that, we want to move forward as fast as we can, but he will know that enforcement law in this area is complex, confusing and, frankly, difficult to understand. Since Royal Assent in 2007, we have commissioned and received a business case from the Security Industry Authority; we have commissioned and received a comprehensive assessment of bailiffs’ fee structures; and we have implemented the provisions of the Act on the registration of tribunal awards.

Bailiff law goes back, I am told, to 1267. It is found in common law and a number of statutes, many of which are centuries old. We need to get this right. If it takes a bit longer to get it right, that is better than doing it too soon.

My Lords, I understand that guidance is offered to bailiffs on when they should make forcible entry when trying to recover moneys. I understand that only about half that guidance is made available to us and others, and that the rest is kept confidential by the Government. Why is that the case?

My Lords, the noble Lord surprises me. There are certainly important guidelines for bailiffs, whether they are in private industry or government bailiffs. Frankly, I do not know whether part of that guidance is not published to the outside world. I will find out and let the noble Lord know.

My Lords, there was consultation of the public over the Regulation of Enforcement Agents document, to which the Government responded in March last year, saying that they preferred the option of bailiffs being regulated by the Security Industry Authority. They promised to publish a full impact assessment by autumn 2008. Nothing has happened. Have the Government moved from their decision to have the Security Industry Authority regulate enforcement agents? What is the current position? Would regulation not prevent the sort of tragic event that has happened in the case of Mr Miller?

My Lords, indeed, it remains our long-term intention for all enforcement agents who are not Crown employees to be overseen by an independent regulatory body. It is well known that our preferred option is the Security Industry Authority. We have commissioned, received and considered a business case from that authority. We have also received an alternative proposal, which needs to be looked at carefully, from the British Parking Association. We believe that, in the long term, regulation is necessary in this field, but we want to make sure that this regulation is appropriate and proportionate, and that those who carry out enforcement action do so properly and well.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned 1267 in relation to the laws governing who may seize property and the behaviour of bailiffs. I think he will find that in one of the clauses of Magna Carta itself undertakings were given as to how bailiffs should behave. Does the Minister agree that, the way things are going, international investors in the United Kingdom will soon be thinking about draft bailiff regulations?

My Lords, I do not have them in front of me, but strict conditions are now laid down for companies that employ bailiffs to make sure that proper persons carry out that important task. The House would probably agree that there must be some sort of system so that creditors can be paid. It is important that that is done properly and proportionately. At the same time, we cannot allow debtors just to get away with refusing to pay.

My Lords, one of the problems arising recently is that bailiffs are increasingly refusing to accept card payments and are insisting on cash. Does the Minister find it acceptable that when an HMCS fine is enforced through a bailiff it should not be payable by credit card? Are the bailiffs who insist on cash licensed by the Inland Revenue to deal with cash in the quantities that they now receive?

My Lords, I was not aware of that particular difficulty. It is one of the issues that will have to be sorted out during the consultation on the regulations so that we come up with a system that is fair both to bailiffs and to those who owe money and have not, for some reason, paid it.