[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered bailiff regulatory reform.
As ever, Mr Evans, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I wish all hon. Members a happy new year. As we embark on a year that will be dominated by Brexit—as we saw in the Chamber just a minute ago—it is good to focus on another concern of our constituents. I called for this debate on reforming the regulation of bailiffs because a shocking case of aggressive behaviour by bailiffs in my own constituency was presented to me at an advice surgery, and I have heard countless other examples from hon. Members and from the charities involved. I thank my local paper, which published an article on the topic over the Christmas period, and members of the public who got in touch with me.
My main message to the Minister is that we simply cannot let bailiffs become a law unto themselves. The Government need to take urgent action against bailiffs who break the rules, behave aggressively and act with apparent impunity. According to the evidence presented by Citizens Advice, StepChange and other organisations, this is not just a few bad apples, but a widespread problem. Although I welcome the call for evidence that the Government announced last year, I stress to the Minister that we are not discussing a minority of bailiffs, and I urge her and her Department to recognise that. After all, we have to face up to the scale of the challenge if we are to find the right solutions.
Some 2.2 million people in England and Wales have been contacted by a bailiff in the past two years. The regulations that the Government introduced in 2014 are welcome, but there are huge problems with the lack of enforcement. Since the introduction of those reforms, Citizens Advice has recorded a 24% increase in problems with bailiffs. One person in three who has experience of bailiffs has seen them breaking the rules, and 40% have suffered intimidation. Unfortunately, the fee structure has created a perverse incentive for bailiffs to make visits and reject repayment offers, which we have seen time and again, as they can charge fees of £235 for every debt they collect in person.
I first became aware of the severity of this problem last year, when a disabled constituent came to see me at an advice surgery. Let us imagine for a moment being in her shoes: you and your partner are just getting up. You hear a knock at the door. Your partner goes to answer it. You hear loud voices, then feet on the stairs. A total stranger strides into your bedroom. You are absolutely terrified. The first thing he does is pick up your purse and take out all the cash. You think you are being burgled, but you are not: you are being visited by bailiffs. My constituent’s experience, unfortunately, is not an isolated case. Another man told me that bailiffs used humiliation in front of his neighbours to gain entry to his home. He said:
“They tried to push their way into my house saying they have a right to. When I asked to see the court papers the bailiff said—you have already had them and he would only discuss the case in the house. He then started shouting so that other people”
including his neighbours
“could hear him—this was obviously to embarrass us”
and to intimidate the man.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate on an issue that is faced by people across the country. Regarding the point she has just raised, does she agree that the current regulations give perfectly innocent people no opportunity whatsoever to prevent a visit by bailiffs or verify the authenticity of visiting bailiffs when they are not the debtor concerned? One of my constituents faced that situation—a traumatic ordeal along the lines that the hon. Lady has outlined.
From all the cases that I have heard about, those experiences are traumatic and have a lasting effect on the people involved. In many cases, they are not necessarily the debtor—they are not the person who owes the money—but they are still treated in an appalling manner. That is not to say that the debtor should be treated appallingly either, but bailiffs do not seem to have regard to the rules, which is that they can seize possessions that belong only to the debtor.
That brings me to another example—a person from the constituency of the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), whose son was in debt and who bravely spoke out on the radio today about his experience. He said:
“We invited these men into our home so that we could understand what was going on and in the belief that we could then work with them to resolve the problem. All they did once inside our home was to threaten us with public humiliation. At no time did they advise us of any of our rights. We were told that although we were in our own home that the only way we could prevent them seizing our property”,
including this gentleman’s car,
“was if we could produce receipts.”
I do not know about other Members, but I would not have a receipt for my car at hand if someone were to knock on my door. I know that the hon. Member for Harborough will speak in more detail about his constituent, whom I thank for coming forward.
In another case, a woman told me:
“I went to close the door and the bailiff put his foot in to my hall to prevent me from shutting the door. I got through to the police, explained the situation, was told he had no right to demand to come into my house. The bailiff had gone by then and did not return but I felt very intimidated and for a while found myself checking through the window before opening the front door.”
How awful that a person should not feel safe in their own home.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I wanted to raise the case of a constituent of mine, in which a bailiff put his foot in the door because he wished to enter the property, but the property he wished to enter did not belong to my constituent—the bailiff wanted to see a tenant of my constituent. Even so, not only did that cause a lot of problems when the police were eventually called, but of course the body camera worn by the bailiff was not working at the time, so no one corroborated whether my constituent was indeed assaulted.
How very convenient for the bailiff involved! We had a similar case in my constituency. At one point, we were told that there was a body cam, but when we pressed to see the footage, we were then told that there was not a body cam. The hon. Gentleman raised that in the form of a written question to the Minister and we should consider it. It will not solve all of our problems, but it would go some way towards helping to look at these disputes.
One man told me that, although he had moved out of his mother’s house and the debt was his and not hers, the bailiffs told her that if she did not pay, her son would go to prison. They marched her to the post office, where she was pressed to withdraw £550 to cover the debt. His mum was 73 at the time. There are countless examples of bad practice from all over the country.
Like other Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Is she aware that there is a private bailiff trade body called the Civil Enforcement Association? Its code of conduct says that its members should be
“professional, ethical…polite, honest and non-threatening”,
yet all the examples that my hon. Friend has given are of behaviours that are the exact opposite. In 2016, the Civil Enforcement Association received 255 complaints about its members yet expelled none of them. Is that not a perfect example of why we need better enforcement and regulation of the bailiff industry?
I could not agree more. I have had contact with that trade association. It is simply not realistic to expect a trade association, which is there to represent its members, to take action against those members. In fact, the lead of that organisation was on “World at One” on Radio 4 today claiming that there was a robust complaints procedure. I beg to differ and will address that point towards the end of my speech.
The worst case of this kind that I have heard—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) has raised it with the Minister and will speak about it today—is the devastating case of Jerome Rogers, who took his own life. He had offered to pay back the debt in stages, but the bailiffs refused. I pay tribute to the brave campaigning of his family, who are here today. We owe it to them to do all we can to change the culture of the bailiff industry so that they are there to help, not penalise people. There is a positive example from Hammersmith and Fulham Council in London, which has stopped using bailiffs to enforce the collection of council tax arrears because it thinks it is better to try to work with the people involved and help them pay back that debt rather than forcing them into a spiral of ever more debt.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Hammersmith and Fulham Council, which as she correctly said stopped using bailiffs to enforce council tax debts from April last year. Collection rates have not gone down since. One council cabinet member said:
“We have done this by intervening early with residents who may have trouble paying council tax, speaking to them in a respectful and supportive way to develop a sustainable repayment plan that both protects the council’s income while avoiding forcing people into making bad financial decisions to avoid bailiffs, such as resorting to payday lenders or missing rent payments.”
Should not all local authorities and anyone trying to enforce debts adopt that as their philosophy?
I could not agree more and would love to see other councils around the country follow that example, for which I thank my hon. Friend, who I am sure played a part in bringing that about. When we hear these cases, it is incumbent on all Members of Parliament to bring them to the Government. It is incumbent on all councils and any other public authorities that are owed money to seek a constructive way to get that money and to help people pay that debt back rather than threatening them with bailiffs.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Five or six years ago, I had a Bill that would have established an independent body to regulate bailiffs. I had some very nasty cases in my constituency at the time, which prompted me. Unfortunately, the Bill did not go through because the Government stopped it. I hope my hon. Friend’s Bill gets through, because it is important that we regulate bailiffs properly and give them proper training.
An independent regulator, training for bailiffs and standards that are enforced are essential—I will come to that towards the end of my speech. I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend for trying to push the issue a few years back. I hope I can follow in his footsteps. I have applied for a ten-minute rule Bill, and I hope I can get something on the statute book, although I also hope the Government will beat me to it.
The examples I quoted remind us that anybody could end up in this situation, although in many cases, the people involved are vulnerable. Often it starts with a small fine or debt that escalates, and it can spiral out of control. Citizens Advice recently found that such experiences have a very negative impact on people’s mental health and financial position. Some of those who are likely to fall into debt already have a mental health problem.
Bailiffs are supposed to have training to identify vulnerable people and to behave appropriately, but the reality is that it is not always obvious that someone has a disability or is suffering from mental ill health. Much more robust legislation needs to be put in place to protect those people.
We need more robust rules and we need more robust enforcement. My constituent is disabled and was facing a fine because her disability badge was out of date. That was because she was moving from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment—that is another story. She was told by the bailiff that she did not look disabled. Her vulnerability has been questioned at every turn when I have raised her case. I thought it was obvious, because she is disabled, that she is vulnerable, but it is not always that obvious, as my hon. Friend says. We need much better procedures in place so that bailiffs recognise that.
Of those who had a negative experience with a bailiff, Citizens Advice found that seven in 10 reported increased stress and anxiety. I am sure that that very much chimes with the experience of the constituents that Members are here to represent. It certainly chimes with the experience of mine. Eight in 10 felt that the experience had a lasting effect and one in two saw their finances deteriorate further.
Indeed it is. It seems to me that it is not in the interests of the local authority. For instance, Hammersmith recognised that if people are forced into more debt, they are unlikely to be able to pay it off. As I understand it, there is no compulsory obligation on bailiffs to accept a repayment plan, which the Government should consider carefully. In fact, all the incentives seem to be stacked against the bailiff being cautious or sympathetic to the debtor. All the incentives seem to be for the bailiff to collect as much money or as many possessions as possible on that visit.
Bailiffs have extraordinary rights to seize possessions and the police are the only other profession that I can think of that is permitted by law to enter someone’s property. The police can do so only if someone is suspected of serious criminality and they have to secure a search warrant and read someone their rights. Those with a complaint can report the police to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. Bailiffs too need a court order, but there seems to be no requirement for bailiffs to tell someone their rights. Indeed, evidence suggests that bailiffs often misrepresent people’s rights to gain entry to their home and seize possessions.
The hon. Lady is moving on to the area of complaints, which is close to my heart. Does she agree that there needs to be a simple system that people can use that includes something like mediation—alternative dispute resolution—that is quick to implement but very friendly and not as intimidating as going to court?
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts the next section of my speech, which is all about that. Short of taking a bailiff to court, there is no meaningful way of seeking redress, because there is no simple or clear complaints procedure. Arguably there is no meaningful complaints procedure, although I will come to that.
In the case of my constituent, I complained to the local council, which was enforcing a parking fine. The council and I complained to the bailiffs company, but it disputed my constituent’s version of events. I complained to the bailiffs trade association, which we have discussed. I got a letter back saying that it was the word of my constituent against the word of the bailiffs. I raised the case in Parliament and we are having a debate today, but even as an MP, I felt powerless to take the case any further, which was deeply frustrating. Can it be right that, short of taking the case to the courts, our constituents have no other means of redress? It cannot, and the bailiffs know it—they know that most people in debt will not have the money to take them to court. There have been only 56 complaints in the courts since the 2014 reforms despite reported widespread bad practice.
One couple explained to me that their attempts to take a complaint forward had been blocked at every opportunity, including by claims from the bailiffs company that letters had been lost in the post—that old chestnut—and had taken nearly a year and cost thousands of pounds. Bailiffs are largely unaccountable, which is why I am calling on the Government to bring forward urgent reform.
Specifically, I call on the Minister to take forward the proposal of a cross-party group of MPs led by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). In a letter sent to the Minister today, they ask the Government to set up an independent regulator to enforce the rules. The regulator, which could be an existing body or a new body, should have a range of powers and responsibilities to set and enforce rules, and standards for bailiffs, and to take both a reactive and proactive approach, investigating firms and individuals where there are complaints but also proactively monitoring standards. Crucially, a regulator must ensure access to redress. Alongside that—this speaks to the point of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell)—we need a fair, free, simple and transparent complaints procedure.
Crucially—I very much speak on behalf of my disabled constituent on this point—bailiffs must be required to identify vulnerable households. To end the targeting of vulnerable people, there have to be clear procedures for referring debts back to creditors when enforcement is not appropriate.
The impact of those reforms must be to change the culture of the industry. There are not enough sanctions on bailiffs, and all the incentives drive bailiffs in the wrong direction—to penalise people rather than help them. The debt advice charities are highly regulated. The debt collectors are also regulated. The bailiff industry is an anomaly. I ask the Minister to take urgent action. They are not difficult reforms and, crucially, implementing such changes would mean that bailiffs played by the rules and treated people with the respect that they deserve.
Order. As Members can see, there is a lot of interest in taking part in the debate. I intend to call the Front Benchers just before 3.40 pm. I plead for self-discipline and restraint regarding time when Members make their contributions. I call John Howell.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and to follow the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), who introduced this important debate.
The debate is timely. The subject is very much on the lips of the Minister and of members of the Justice Committee, as both the Minister and the Committee are undertaking inquiries at the moment. The Ministry of Justice inquiry, which has called for evidence, will look at the effect of the 2014 legislation, which although it has brought some benefits, clearly did not go far enough and has created new problems, as the Lady told us. Those problems are due to the behaviour of many bailiffs—the way they go about their job is a real problem for us. I believe the Ministry of Justice has promised that any proposed changes will be put out to consultation, so we will all have the opportunity to engage with them.
The Justice Committee also decided to conduct an inquiry on the subject, and we discussed yesterday how it would feed into the Ministry of Justice inquiry and how we could submit it as evidence. The Committee’s inquiry will look at the 2014 legislation and the way in which complaints are handled and dealt with throughout the process. Two issues emerge above all: the extent of regulation and the complaints system. The two are of course associated, but they need also to be looked at separately.
As the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) mentioned, the Civil Enforcement Association exists, but it is not independent. The system of regulation is effectively one of self-regulation or, in this case, pretty much no regulation. I listened to all the points made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East about why the system of regulation is not very effective. One point that came in, but was not actually mentioned, is that no sanctions can be levelled against a firm of bailiffs conducting its business in such a way.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The Civil Enforcement Association is just a trade body. People have to pay a fee to be a member, but a bailiff does not have to be a member. The answer is to have an independent bailiff regulator capable of banning and prosecuting bailiffs who break the law. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is in the interests of bailiffs who respect the law and their customers, particularly vulnerable ones?
I very much agree with the hon. Lady’s description of how the regulatory system should work, but I do not think we should concentrate solely on the regulatory system. I completely take on board everything she said about what the regulatory system needs to include, but we need also to examine how complaints are dealt with if we want to have an effect on bailiffs who are not doing their job properly or are abusing their position.
The current complaints system has seen an enormous increase in people trying to make complaints, but fewer people have been able to do so legitimately. I propose to the Minister that, before she proceeds with the results of the call for evidence, she and I have a conversation. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution, and I think we have the solution to the problem. The solution, which the rail system is using to try to deal with complaints, is to have in place a system of alternative dispute resolution, including such things as mediation, that can deliver quick advice.
One great thing about alternative dispute resolution is that it is much cheaper than going to the courts. That is what we need. If the Minister would like to have a conversation with me, I will propose a system to do that. From the experience that we have of how ADR has been used elsewhere, I think it will satisfy all the requirements that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East set out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) for introducing the debate so eloquently that it is almost impossible to imagine the Government not wanting to act. I think there is cross-party agreement that action needs to be taken, which has to be incredibly powerful. I know that the Minister is listening, as she has listened to me previously, and that she will have listened to everything that my hon. Friend said.
As we know, bailiffs are the only part of the financial sector that is not regulated with an independent regulator. A powerful case has been made already in the debate, and by Citizens Advice and many other voluntary organisations, that the problem is worsening, that it is not being fixed by the changes made in 2014, and that something should be done. My involvement arose from a meeting with a constituent, the mother of Jerome Rogers from New Addington, who in 2016 ended his life at the age of just 20. Jerome had two £85 traffic fines from Camden Council that he had received in the course of doing his job as a motorbike courier. Due to the escalation of that fine and enforcement by Newlyn plc, the fines spiralled to more than £1,000. The Minister is aware of the case and last year she very kindly met with Jerome’s family and with me.
Jerome’s case is particularly tragic, but we must not think that it was a one-off. The coroner found that the bailiffs involved with Jerome had complied with the industry’s guidelines—guidelines that are self-written and self-enforced, as we have discussed. That is not something to be proud of; it simply highlights how flawed the guidelines are and how flawed the system of self-regulation is across the whole bailiff industry—especially in view of what Jerome was subjected to in the months leading up to his death. Each of these things underlines a systemic problem rather than a problem specific to Jerome.
Jerome was refused an affordable repayment plan. He called the bailiff after being told that he would be receiving a visit to his home and was told that he needed to call Newlyn. Newlyn then told him that he must pay the debt in full. After the bailiff visited his home, adding more money to his debt in the process, he was finally offered a repayment plan, but at £128 per week it was clearly not affordable. His average earnings were about £97 a week, and less than £20 after his work expenses. If Camden Council had offered him a repayment plan of £10 per week there and then, he could have paid off both £65 fines in three months.
Secondly, Jerome’s motorbike—his only means of earning money—was clamped. There was dispute over the valuation of the bike and whether it was even legal to clamp it, but looking beyond the valuation, it is surely wrong that a person’s sole means of income can be taken away by bailiffs. Thirdly, the enforcement fees were duplicated because the two cases were treated as separate, which is in the interests of no one but the bailiffs, who can charge £75 per case for simply writing a letter. It makes no sense that £150 can be added to a debt for a few pieces of A4 paper, or that two cases cannot be dealt with in the same letter. Bailiffs charge hundreds of pounds per case for every visit to a property, which might explain why they refused a repayment plan before the bailiff made his visit. The coroner viewed the bailiff’s behaviour as intimidating and raised the possibility that his actions could have been viewed as a form of harassment. They involved sitting outside the house for a prolonged period without telling Jerome why he was outside.
The fourth issue is one that has already been spoken about: the bailiff was paid by results. He had the potential to earn more if he seized assets, but if the debt was not cleared he would not get paid. Debt collection agencies are prohibited by their regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, from paying enforcement agents through such commission models. Those models are common in the bailiff industry, but we cannot stop them leading to bad practice when bailiffs have the power to seize assets and enter homes. It is systemic.
There is FCA regulation in the private sector to some extent, but not in the public sector, as in my hon. Friend’s example. Extraordinarily, the National Audit Office’s recent report found that in many cases Government bodies are worse at fulfilling their duties. Does she agree that the Minister should look particularly at what local authorities and central Government Departments are doing in the area?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We must tackle all the aspects; we cannot just say that it is a problem for local authorities without also looking at independent regulation.
I realise that I have already spoken for longer than I should have, Mr Evans. I wanted to give other examples of cases and stories that people have written to me about, but I will write to the Minister about them instead.
The trade body is not fit for purpose as a regulator. Indeed, it has written to me, as have other bailiffs, threatening legal action:
“Please desist from using this tragedy to lobby for changes that are unrelated to the actions of the enforcement agents.”
The chief executive officer of the trade body called our work on behalf of Jerome’s family
“a means to attract publicity for a populist campaign on behalf of the debt advice sector.”
For shame! That is not what we are doing; we are trying to honour the memory of Jerome and fix a system that is clearly broken. I really hope that the Minister will listen. I will work with her, as we all will, to make sure that we bring in the right kind of regulation.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on securing this important debate; she spoke incredibly well. She referred to the treatment that my constituents received at the hands of bailiffs. Let me add a little about their experience by quoting from a letter they wrote:
“My wife & I (both retired) were woken up by loud banging on our front door at 7.22am. When I answered the door I was confronted by two men who announced that they were bailiffs… The first we knew of the matter was when they…turned up at our door… We were…in shock…at the threat of a tow truck arriving at our door to remove our car and that we were to be humiliated by our possessions being publicly removed from our house… Later that day my wife and I sought advice from our local Citizens’ Advice Bureau... The CAB advisor informed us that we could have refused the officers entry…and that we could have signed a Statutory Declaration of ownership covering goods not belonging to our son which should have prevented our property being taken in lieu for my son’s debt. At no time did the officers inform us about this… My wife and I have never broken the law. Both my wife and I used to work for the prison service. We have both since we retired, been active as local volunteers… I…find it reprehensible that two pensioners should be coerced, albeit politely, into having to hand over their pension savings for something that they are not in any way culpable for. Nor can we believe that British law supports the kind of action we have experienced.”
They are absolutely right. It is clear that the law needs to change and that we need to go beyond the 2014 reforms, and I am glad that the Government have announced the call for evidence. I praise the campaigning work of Citizens Advice and the debt charity StepChange. I think six main things need to change.
First, we need an independent regulator, and I welcome that being raised explicitly in the current review. When I took up my constituents’ case, I was astonished to find that there was no independent regulator, given that there are industries such as the parking industry in which far less serious things happen but in which there is a clear independent regulator. Debt collectors who are not bailiffs and do not have bailiffs’ powers have a regulator, so this is a historical anomaly that needs to be fixed.
Secondly, once the regulator is set up, it needs to improve the process. Part of that is about communication —if my constituents had been informed about the debts at an earlier stage, they could have nipped the whole problem in the bud—but part of it should also be about the offer of an affordable payment plan, as several hon. Members have said. Affordable payment plans have become the norm in most types of debt collection and for most utilities, because we know that vulnerable people are much more likely to pay if they are offered a structured plan rather than getting a big demand all at once. As it happens, my constituents are bright, articulate, hard-working people, but even they felt totally humiliated by the process. Imagine how those who are more vulnerable feel.
Absolutely. That point brings me on to the third thing that needs to change: people need to be told what their rights are. My constituents never were. If someone is arrested, they are told their rights; the same thing should happen if a bailiff visits.
Fourthly, there must be a clear and simple complaints procedure through the new independent regulator, backed up with swift fines for bailiffs who break the rules. Fifthly, there must be controls on fees. My constituents’ son’s original debt was increased by half again, and we have heard about the tragic case of Jerome Rogers, which is incredibly moving. I was shocked that a publicly funded institution had initiated the debt collection against my constituents. As hon. Members have said, the incentives in the industry are to seize as much as possible in order to do as much business as possible, and there is no link between fees and ability to pay. Finally, the new regulator should improve training standards for bailiffs, as some have only a few hours of training. That is truly shocking.
A great injustice was done to my constituents, who are hard-working, law-abiding, public-spirited people. We are lucky to have a very able Minister guiding the Government’s response to the call for evidence. Every single day in this country, vulnerable people are being maltreated purely as a result of a historical anomaly. I know that she will want to put that right as soon as possible.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on getting today’s debate on the agenda. I agree wholeheartedly that we should be helping people, not penalising them, and that there is certainly a need for regulatory change on the British mainland.
May I cite the example of Northern Ireland? Bailiffs do not operate in Northern Ireland; we have a very different system, which I recommend that the Minister should examine when she considers how to take action on the points raised today. Indeed, the attitude of, “If you have it and you haven’t paid, we will seize it”, I see on popular television programmes, which is alien to many people in Northern Ireland who face debt issues.
Enforcement officers in Northern Ireland can go out only if they have a court order and are accompanied by a police officer. Enforcement is strictly and specifically done via court order, and the individual in question knows that it is happening and, ultimately, when it will happen. This is therefore not a common practice, as it is on the British mainland. Even in the Republic of Ireland, where bailiffs do operate, the court order has to contain the name of the bailiff who will go to the person’s home. It is an open and transparent system, which can be challenged.
Why is that the case? Northern Ireland’s troubled past is very clear. Having gangs or groups of people who are allowed to “enforce” in Northern Ireland without police supervision could be very dangerous, given our paramilitary past and the issues that pertain there. Indeed, there are some very detailed cases that show why that should be avoided. Most recently, for example, in Roscommon in the Republic of Ireland, a Northern Ireland enforcement team was employed by a bank to seize a property that a mortgage had not been paid on for 16 years. The enforcement order in the Republic of Ireland contained the name of the bailiffs who would attend the property and remove the people who had not paid for it. Unfortunately, it spiralled into a very serious crime situation.
The bailiffs, or the enforcement officers from Northern Ireland who were employed, many of them ex-soldiers and some of them ex-police officers, were charged upon by about 40 people in a gang. A chainsaw was taken to the door, the door was removed, and the bailiffs were dragged out of the property, tied up and beaten. One of them received a fractured skull, another a broken arm. The dog that they had with them to do security work and to look after the property that evening was killed. One of the bailiffs was forced with a gun pointed to his head to eat the faeces that the dog had left. So we had a very serious situation.
Thankfully, the Guards in the Republic of Ireland have arrested four people and hopefully charges will pertain in that case. However, it shows the difficulties in a situation that has grown up with crime, and I see crime developing here on the British mainland in many of our cities, where there is anger and instant “law of the jungle” retribution. We saw that here in this city last night, with people stabbing a boy who had driven into their car. Allowing that sort of attitude to develop in a country will lead to a law of the jungle mentality. The culture change that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East argued for is therefore absolutely essential.
We do not need gangs of people to be asked to do this work; rather, we need a managed response to debt. Debt has to be addressed and ultimately, of course, paid, and the person has to take responsibility for paying off their debts. But when enforcement officers humiliate people, and when they feel vulnerable in their own properties and do not know their rights, as Members have described, that needs to addressed through proper regulation. I therefore support the motion moved by the hon. Lady and hope that the Government will look at the example of Northern Ireland and ask, “How have they been able to get away from creating a situation that would have deteriorated into a downward spiral of the law of the jungle?”
Thank you for calling me, Mr Evans. It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the other interesting and vital contributions. I want to present a slightly different perspective. I have a debt collection agency in my constituency that has been very concerned and wanted me to speak in this debate, because it felt it was important to put on the record the practices of the good debt collection agencies. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) said it was not fair on those who play by the rules, although there are clearly many examples of highly concerning practice, which Members from all parts of the House have highlighted, and I certainly do not take away from those for one second.
The point behind my contribution is to highlight for the Minister how the good debt collection agencies operate. Bristow and Sutor employs 156 people in my Redditch constituency and is already proactively improving the way that it operates, because it recognises many of the concerns that have been raised. Indeed, collecting debt in a fair and compassionate way results in more debt being collected, which is what we all want. We need to see that debt collected because it makes a vital contribution to our public services.
Importantly, Bristow and Sutor’s agents are all directly employed by the company. They are not on zero-hours contracts and are monitored and trained by the company directly. They have body-worn cameras when they go out and visit clients. The company has named people who deal with a particular client when they are visited and its agents are trained to deal with all the situations that they might come across.
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I completely agree. I was going to say that this particular firm is not against further regulation at all. It merely makes the point that it needs to be done in consultation with the debt enforcement agencies, looking at the best practice of some of the good agents, who carry out vital work that needs to be done to recover funds that will go into our local government coffers. When I visited that firm in my constituency, it made the point that its recovery rate is much more effective than those of some of its competitors. It is the second largest enforcement agency in the country and covers 16% of all local authorities’ collections. It is not the one that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) referred to, and it does have a good reputation locally. I wanted merely to place that on the record, and I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to totally overhaul the system.
Absolutely. I have visited the company, which is a long-standing employer in the constituency. People have worked there for many years, starting their careers in that business. The company takes that very seriously, otherwise it would not have loyal employees for such a long period who care about doing their jobs properly and respectfully and about treating their clients with dignity in extremely difficult situations. That gives further assurance that there is proper oversight.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on securing this important debate and on the way in which she introduced the subject. As we have heard, we have all had many constituents contact us when they have received a bailiff’s letter or had a bailiff turn up at the door. Although we would want our constituents to contact us as soon as possible, when things might be a little easier to resolve, we have to remember that quite often a Member of Parliament is not the first port of call for someone facing a debt situation.
There is the question of household debt, the availability of easy credit and, as we have heard, the way in which a seemingly small debt can spiral out of control once an enforcement process begins, so we need to think about what more we can do to stop debt becoming the debilitating and all-consuming terror that it often is. To paraphrase a former Prime Minister, we should be not just tough on bailiffs, but tough on the causes of bailiffs, but that is perhaps a wider debate for another time.
I appreciate that there are important distinctions between the powers of a bailiff appointed by the court and a debt collector, but are those differences apparent to the public, particularly when someone knocks on the door unexpectedly demanding money? We know bailiffs must provide evidence upon request by the debtors, as well as sight of a warrant providing them with authority to enter, but how many people in such a pressurised situation will have the presence of mind to ask for those things?
We know that, as part of national standards, bailiffs are expected to treat the debtor fairly at all times. However, one recent example that I came across concerned a constituent who was unable to keep up with the payment plan they had previously agreed because they were in poor health and had been unable to work. The bailiff’s demand in those circumstances was to actually request that the monthly repayment be doubled. How is that a reasonable request? How is that treating the debtor fairly at all times? The national standards are not legally binding, which is presumably why we see such outrageous behaviour.
I am sorry; other people want to speak, so we have to move on.
An even worse example was when a constituent had agreed a payment plan with bailiffs, which she was paying on time and in full. She then received a letter from the bailiffs requesting that the repayment increase by £30 a week. There never was and has not been any justification given for that proposal. Following that request, and despite the constituent asking for an income and expenditure form to demonstrate that she could not afford the increase, she then received a letter asking that the full debt be repaid within 24 hours or goods would be removed. There then followed the threatening phone calls and visits to the property that we have often heard about. Such despicable behaviour cannot be justified, but in this instance, as in many, the original creditor had washed their hands of the whole business. They do not seem to care how unreasonable, threatening or intimidating the bailiffs get. They just want their money back. Even if they are outsourcing responsibility to recover the debt, they should not outsource their responsibility to ensure that the debt is recovered in a responsible manner.
Demands for unaffordable payment plans are probably the most commonly occurring issue that we get. We often find that bailiffs are unwilling to negotiate and then ask for the full amount owed. They even suggest that debtors should borrow more money to repay the debt. As we have heard, the situation is exacerbated by adding hundreds of pounds to the debt once a visit has been made by a bailiff, which can lead to punitive increases that are often totally disproportionate to the original sum being recovered. I appreciate that those wishing to recover the debts need to recover their own costs as well, but the fees, which are then treated as part of the debt, cannot make it any easier for the individual to repay the debt.
In conclusion, I support Citizens Advice’s call for the Government to report annually on the debt to Government and essential service providers, and for the introduction of an independent regulator for the bailiff industry. It is time we gave people confidence that the difficult issue of debt enforcement will be given the same checks and balances that we rightly expect in many other areas of our lives.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on obtaining this important debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) on persuading me to sign the letter of the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) about trying to get change through a meeting with the Justice Secretary.
I am making my speech partly in my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on poverty. Clearly, poverty and debt are inextricably linked. I totally agree that there is a problem with bailiffs and support the call for an independent regulator. There are also problems with debt. Collecting debt must be a commercial matter. It can be very effective. I have to tell the House that in my business life we have a number of offices and, in 2008 when things were pretty tough in the economy, we were visited by the bailiffs and paid our debt very quickly on the back of that. We did not realise how quickly bailiffs could enter premises on a commercial lease without any notice, but we soon found out, so they can be very effective. However, there are other and better ways to collect debts in many instances.
Debt is a commercial matter and those to whom people are not paying their debts have a perfect right to try to collect them, but several hon. Members have spoken today about local authorities, over which we should have some influence. The local authorities in question should learn from and develop best practice on debt collection. I had a meeting with StepChange, the debt advice charity. Thirty per cent. of the people coming to the charity are behind with their council tax. That is by far the No. 1 area for debt that it works with. There has been a huge increase over the past seven years. Seven years ago, 21% of total debt was owed to utilities and local government. Today 26% of debt is with utilities, but 40% of total debt is with local authorities. Local authorities have been criticised by the Treasury Committee for being overzealous in their recourse to bailiffs and could make a significant difference to people’s lives if they adopted debt collection best practice. The Justice Committee will also consider that. Interesting research from Citizens Advice said that one in four people had made their bailiff an affordable payment offer that was rejected. Clearly there is a better way to deal with the matter.
What is best practice? The Money Advice Service has developed what it calls a supportive council tax recovery toolkit for local authorities to adopt, which talks about best practice and how to liaise with debt advice agencies, taking specific approaches to specific cohorts, particularly vulnerable people. On utilities, I have had dialogue with Yorkshire Water about how it deals with vulnerable households and how it makes sure it identifies those people. According to the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, 50% of people who are in debt have mental health problems, so it is a case of identifying them and taking a different approach. In my constituency, as in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), an excellent debt collection agency works with the utilities. I have visited it and it takes a supportive and collaborative approach to debt collection. The collection rates are at least as good as those obtained by traditional routes.
I absolutely support the calls for an independent regulator, but I also suggest developing best practice and perhaps creating a requirement for local authorities to follow it in the first instance. That would make a huge difference to people who are in debt and to people in poverty.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on securing the debate. I have long been interested in bailiff practice both as chair of the all-party group on debt and personal finance, and from my long association with Citizens Advice as manager of the local bureau. I had hoped that the 2014 regulations would stop the bad practice I saw when I was doing that work. I saw bailiffs who threatened to take children into care. On one occasion I heard them trying to seize a family pet in front of the children. Perversely, the regulations have created consolidation into bigger firms, and it is easier for the people at the top of those firms to blame individual bailiffs as rogues, and to say that it is nothing to do with them, their training or their practices. I have sympathy for individual bailiffs. As we have heard, there are some very bad employment practices such as working on commission and payment by results. We must stop the cycle of desperate people chasing desperate people.
Bailiffs are still breaching the new regulations. According to StepChange, a third of the 2.2 million people contacted by bailiffs in the past two years experienced them flouting the law. Bailiffs forced entry and took goods needed for work. Half the StepChange clients surveyed in 2016 said that affordable repayment plans had been refused. I have certainly never known a bailiff to accept the single financial statement that most other creditors accept. Complaints are too difficult. Only 28% of people complain and, as we have heard, there have been 56 complaints to the court since 2014. Does that mean that we have had only 56 problems with bailiffs? The charities would certainly dispute that.
To me, the question is not why we should regulate bailiffs but why we should not. Everyone else is regulated. Debt collectors and debt charities are regulated, but bailiffs are free from oversight by an independent regulator despite dealing with people in probably the most vulnerable circumstances who should have the most protection. Their only protection at the moment is guidance. As others have asked, what are the sanctions if that is ignored? Many hon. Members have put forward the same solution: independent regulation twinned with a simplified single free and independent complaints procedure similar to the system used for debt collectors. It is not only the frontline charities who call for that—some bailiffs firms would like it because they want to get some of the rogues out of the business. Self-regulation has not worked. There is enough evidence to prove that there is a systemic problem and not just a few bad apples. Everyone who deals with people in very vulnerable circumstances is regulated, so I ask the Minister why bailiffs should be the exception. I ask her to act quickly to prevent anyone else paying the highest price, as Jerome Rogers did.
I shall not delay the House much. I want to focus on just one area. Many hon. Members have focused on financial recovery, which is entirely appropriate. To assist constituents and improve the perception of the bailiff industry, I want to talk about repossessions.
A landlord can, for any reason, apply to a county court to seek a possession order. That usually happens when a tenant has broken the terms of the lease. Subject to the decision of the court, the tenant will be given 14 or 28 days to vacate the property or, in exceptional hardship, the judge can allow them 42 days to leave. Such an order is presented and communicated to the tenant so that they are aware of it. Many people then decide to see the council, but local authorities tell people to remain in the property until they are physically kicked out.
On occasion, landlords can apply to the High Court to seek an immediate possession order and enforcement by a High Court enforcement officer. That requires no notice. An officer will turn up at someone’s house and tell them to pack the possessions that they need for the next few days. They will give them an hour to leave, and they can collect their property at an arranged date later. Imagine the hardship and distress that it causes someone when they are told they must leave the house immediately and that they can then take the paperwork to the council, which will rehouse them.
Will the Minister consider speaking to her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about the rehousing of people who have received possession notices, so that they do not have to go through that traumatic experience—particularly if they are elderly or vulnerable, or have children?
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and I wish to make a few brief points in this important debate—there have already been many valuable contributions from across the House.
The debate should be seen in the wider context of growing household debt. The rise of rogue bailiffs speaks to a wider malaise in our economy. People face a range of challenges, including insecure work and zero-hours contracts, stagnant wages, benefit cuts and access to affordable credit, which all put pressure on household finances. It is no surprise that the No. l money concern for people seeking help from Citizens Advice is household debt. UK households owe an average of just over £15,000 in unsecured lending from credit card firms, banks and other household debt, and unsecured debt is now the highest it has ever been—indeed, it is higher than before the financial crisis.
It is not a sound basis on which to build our future economic prosperity if more of our wages go towards servicing debt than spending on our basic needs. It is therefore not surprising in such an environment that more people are racking up debt and struggling to pay household bills, council tax and some of the other debts we are discussing. It is also not surprising that into such an environment step those rogue bailiffs who exploit people who are already struggling with debt, and who are vulnerable or in precarious circumstances.
Like the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), I am not arguing—I do not think any Member of the House would argue this—that creditors are not entitled to pursue their debtors. It would be unfair on those who do pay their debts if others were not encouraged and made to do so. The issue, however, is about obeying the law and exploiting people, especially if they already face financial hardship and are vulnerable. In truth, ballooning household debt means that bailiffs now have more scope to exploit some of the most vulnerable people in our society by refusing to accept affordable payment offers, and by misrepresenting their rights of entry or acting aggressively or unsympathetically on the doorstep. That is the issue we need to focus on, and where we need Government action.
Members have already mentioned the letter sent today to the Justice Secretary to ensure that the Government take seriously calls from across the House for an independent regulator. As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) said, the 2014 reforms have not worked and it is now time for such a regulator. I hope the Government seize this opportunity and take heed of the concerns raised and the examples that Members have given, put in place that independent regulator, and ensure that those struggling with financial difficulties are not exploited in the ways we have heard about.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and to follow speeches on the important matters raised. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) for securing the debate. As we have heard, rogue bailiffs are a blight on the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and the issue affects those with debt from household bills rather than from consumer credit. People who are struggling to pay their council tax or energy bills—the essentials in life—are having increasing problems with bailiffs.
There are serious, structural problems with how some bailiffs operate, and are allowed to operate, and 850,000 people contacted by bailiffs in the past two years have experienced law breaking. As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) said, just 56 complaints have been launched with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service. The complaints system is not fit for purpose and lacks teeth. When someone complains directly to a firm, there are no statutory guidelines about how complaints should be reviewed, or about the sanctions or compensation that should result. The process is long-winded, confusing and inaccessible, and rarely leads to any real consequences for the bailiff involved. However, rule breaking by bailiffs has consequences for those they contact. Refusal to accept affordable payment offers is a huge problem—almost one in four people contacted by bailiffs in the past two years had an affordable payment offer rejected.
My constituency suffers from income poverty and has one of the highest levels of suicide. There are also high levels of prescriptions for anti-depressants. One of my constituents, a 65-year-old woman, has already had her personal independence payment stopped and is subject to the bedroom tax. Her gas supply has been capped and she has rent arrears, and has received an offer from the housing association. She now has to pay back a council tax debt at an amount that is simply unaffordable to her. After bailiffs knocked at her door, she was frightened and agreed on the spot to pay the amount suggested. This woman sleeps on a couch—she does not own a bed. As a direct result of bailiff action, my constituent’s mental and physical health has deteriorated.
Almost two in five of those contacted by bailiffs in the last two years experienced some sort of intimidation. I call on the Minister to act as quickly as possible and to take steps to alleviate the problems faced by my constituents and those who are suffering across the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on securing this important debate. I wish to raise a few cases that my constituents have brought to my attention, and I will focus on vulnerability, which has already been mentioned by some of my colleagues.
Constituents have contacted me in a state of real despair and great distress. One constituent has multiple health conditions, all of which qualify her to be considered vulnerable under the bailiff’s own policies and guidelines, but despite her advising the bailiff of that, her vulnerability was entirely ignored and the debt agency would not take it into consideration until my office intervened. At one stage of the interaction between my constituent and the bailiffs, rather than trying to assist or advise her constructively, she was advised that prison might be an option.
Another constituent has two young children and was pregnant with her third. She too would be considered vulnerable under the bailiff’s own policies. She regularly received threatening letters about the removal of her property and her possessions. She had so few possessions that she was regularly on the phone to my office, in tears, fearing that her children’s toys would be removed to settle some of those debts. The fact that the bailiff would not take into consideration any of the vulnerabilities detailed in its own policies until my office stepped in tells me that the current systems are not working. The extra stress placed on my constituent during her pregnancy made it even worse, and every letter sent and visit made accrued extra financial burden and added more to a debt that she already had no idea how to pay.
Another constituent was harassed by threats of the removal of belongings, and there were many visits and additional letters, ramping up those artificial charges. My office intervened and managed to put in place a reviewed payment plan, but unfortunately the bailiff entirely ignored that agreement, and the following day they turned up at my constituent’s home demanding payment. After an attempt to intimidate my constituent, we had to step in again, but when her health condition meant that she ended up in hospital and unfortunately missed a £10 payment, the bailiff was back at the door as soon as she was out of hospital, demanding payments at a much higher, unaffordable level, and saying that the debt had increased. That was not the case at all, and was completely false advice about the current situation. Fortunately, we were able to resolve the problem again, but this shows that the bailiffs’ code is falling short and self-policing is not working. Today, a clear case has been made for far better enforcement, although if that adds to the burdens of local authorities, the Government should not seek to take action without ensuring that additional resources are in place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. This has been a fantastic debate from which I have learned a great deal.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) secured the debate to shine a light on the case of her disabled constituent, who thought she was being burgled when debt collectors forced their way into her home without showing ID, and stole cash from her purse. As we know, that was not an isolated incident. The hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) described a case where constituents of his suffered total humiliation. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) talked about threatening and intimidating behaviour, and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) spoke of vulnerable constituents receiving threatening letters and living in fear and anxiety.
My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) spoke about the tragic death of Jerome Rogers. That should concentrate all our minds on the importance of this debate. Jerome was a young man with plenty to live for when he took his own life, but it seems he felt that he just could not go on in the face of the stress and despair he felt after months of interaction with bailiffs. Looking at his story, it is striking how unfair and pointless his treatment was. He was struggling with debt and trying to get out of it, but the odds were stacked against him.
Two unpaid £65 traffic fines spiralled to debts of more than £1,000 in a matter of months. Sky-high bailiff fees meant that there was virtually no cap on what they could take from Jerome. Knowing he could not cope with the debt and the eye-watering fees, he contacted the bailiff company and the individual bailiff dealing with his case, asking to set up an affordable repayment plan. He was met with a flat refusal and little to no human compassion. At least he could earn some money using his motorbike to deliver blood supplies to London’s hospitals—but no. It seems that the bailiffs were systematically cutting off every escape route he could think of. They clamped Jerome’s motorbike, despite the fact that its value fell far below the £1,350 threshold for seizing or taking control of goods. Not only did Jerome have no money and no agency to solve his problems, but he had the added pressure of the intimidating presence of a bailiff outside his home. The stress was unimaginable, and ultimately Jerome just could not take it anymore.
As many people have said, we are not talking about a one-off case, or a few rogue bailiffs and their firms. Recent research from Citizens Advice shows that one person in three has experienced bailiffs breaking the rules, and half of StepChange Debt Charity’s clients said their bailiff refused to accept an affordable repayment offer. This is a systemic failure in our society that must be dealt with.
The legislation covering bailiffs is complex and fragmented. It has failed to protect vulnerable people going through hard times from aggressive and intimidating behaviour. There were some positive measures in the 2014 reforms to taking control of goods, but they just have not worked. It seems that bailiffs are ignoring many of the provisions, as they did when seizing Jerome’s motorbike, refusing affordable payment plans or engaging in threatening behaviour. We cannot allow the bailiff industry to continue marking its own homework.
I have had similar problems in my constituency with the bailiffs hired by my local council. Bristow and Sutor—a company that the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) mentioned—uses cameras to take photos of people’s possessions and threatens them with those possessions being sold off if they cannot pay a full demand up front, immediately. It also refuses payment plans. My constituents say its bailiffs have even visited elderly relatives, refused to leave their properties and made them feel intimidated. I am sorry to say that even where we have better practice, with directly employed agents, very serious complaints are still being made.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Story after story shows why reform is necessary. Unlike similar industries dealing with vulnerable people, such as debt collectors, the bailiff industry is not overseen by an independent regulator. As Labour recognised with our successful payday loan campaign, self-regulation is just not suitable for industries with intrusive powers over vulnerable people’s lives, homes and finances. It is just too easy for unscrupulous companies to be greedy or to mistreat people when they are at their lowest. None of the main trade bodies for bailiff companies seems interested in enforcing the law or holding the industry to account, and even if they were, they do not have the teeth to do so, just as we saw with payday lenders.
There is also no simple, accessible complaints system for people to report the horror stories or infringements of the bailiffs they are dealing with. The only thing that will do, as so many colleagues have said, is to replace the broken system of self-regulation and piecemeal reform with independent bodies that will hold the industry to account and allow people’s complaints to be heard and dealt with. We need either a new regulator or to bring bailiffs within the remit of the Financial Conduct Authority—that went a long way towards reining in payday lenders. It does not matter what body we choose as long as it is fully independent and has the teeth and the will to put a stop to unscrupulous behaviour.
We also need a simplified, free, independent complaints procedure, adjudicated by an independent body. We need to listen to the myriad voices calling for change—organisations that in many cases are working on the frontline of the effects of the broken bailiff system. They include AdviceUK, the Children’s Society, Christians Against Poverty, Citizens Advice, Community Money Advice, the Institute of Money Advisers, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, the Money Advice Trust and StepChange Debt Charity.
Many colleagues said that the current system is not fit for purpose. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about the current system of regulation not working because there are no sanctions, as did the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who also brought a mental health angle to the discussions and suggested some practical solutions. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) talked knowledgeably about how the law needs to change, and made a wider point about use of bailiffs being a symptom of increasing household debt. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) brought a Northern Ireland perspective to the debate and talked about how enforcement orders are used. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston made a wider, and important, point about the need to be tough on bailiffs and tough on the causes of bailiffs. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) talked of desperate people chasing desperate people and brought her long-standing expertise to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) talked about how the complaints system is not working and is not fit for purpose, and the wider issue of poverty.
There really is no excuse for the Minister not to act. As the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) explained, some of the bailiff companies are themselves calling for independent regulation. I have a fundamental request. Will the Minister agree to enact a properly independent regulator, and will she set a timetable today to do so? Will she also urge other local councils to follow the example of Hammersmith and Fulham and not use bailiffs? Will she heed the call from the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for councils to look at how they deal with repossession and rehousing? Every day that we wait is another day of stress and despair for too many people struggling with bailiffs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) on securing the debate on a matter that I know has affected her constituents greatly, as she spoke to me about it a few weeks ago.
I pay tribute to all hon. Members for the quality and passion of the contributions today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said, this is a timely debate because on 25 November the Government launched a call for evidence to inform their second review of the 2014 reforms that regulate enforcement agents, in order to ensure that that important area operates well. We have framed that call for evidence against the points that have been raised with us about how the system is not operating as it should. We have heard much today that will help us reflect on that call for evidence.
It is interesting that three colleagues—my hon. Friends the Members for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) and for Hendon (Dr Offord)—all raised examples of bailiffs taking action against people who were not even the debtors.
I welcome the fact that the Government have agreed to review the matter. Does the Minister agree that it is important to stop innocent homeowners being caught up in the collection of debts that they have nothing to do with, including where those debts have been incurred through fraudulent credit card applications, as in the case of my constituent?
That is a very interesting point, which I just highlighted—three of my hon. Friends raised the issue of whom the action is taken against. I know my hon. Friend feels strongly about this, and it is something he has talked to me about before.
Before I turn to the review in more detail, I want to set out a bit more about the subject of debt enforcement more broadly. Enforcement agent action has been, and is likely to remain, a highly divisive subject. People who experience debt problems represent a broad spectrum of society, including some who are extremely vulnerable and others who deliberately refuse to pay for products and services.
It is important to note the two points that were made in this debate by a number of Members. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) highlighted the need for people who owe money to pay their debts, because the recovery of debts is important to the economy and the justice system. My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) highlighted the good practice of a company in her constituency. The Government are committed to ensuring that all enforcement agents treat debtors fairly and operate responsibly and proportionately. Our role as a Government is to strike the right balance between ensuring that debts can be collected effectively while protecting debtors from enforcement agents’ aggressive behaviour.
With those principles in mind, and after an extensive period of research and engagement, the Government imposed significant extra regulation on the enforcement process and the behaviour of enforcement agents in April 2014. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East welcomes those reforms, which included a comprehensive code governing when and how enforcement agents can enter somebody’s premises; the safeguards to prevent the use of force against debtors; which goods agents can and cannot seize and, if necessary, sell; and what fees they can charge.
The reforms stopped enforcement agents entering homes when only children are present and introduced important safeguards for vulnerable debtors. They aimed to make all parties more aware of their rights and responsibilities and introduced a new certification process for enforcement agents to ensure that they are the right people for the job. They introduced mandatory training to ensure that enforcement agents have the skills required to perform the role. The Government undertook to review the implementation of the reforms after one, three and, if necessary, five years in order to check that they are working as intended. The review, which was published in 2018, found that the reforms had many positive benefits, such as better awareness of debtors’ rights and how to complain, as well as more clarity for debtors about the fees that can be charged, the processes that should be followed and where to go for advice. However, it also reported that debt advisers and debtors still perceive some enforcement agents to be acting aggressively and, in some cases, not acting within the regulations.
The Government take those concerns very seriously. While many enforcement agents work within the law, we will not tolerate any who pursue aggressive tactics and bad practice, who make people’s lives a misery and ruin the industry’s reputation. For that reason, we launched the call for evidence to shine a spotlight on the behaviour of enforcement agents. Many of the points that have been raised today are the subject of that call for evidence. The hon. Members for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and for Wolverhampton North East highlighted the problem of threatening behaviour, which is part of the call for evidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East raised the issue of complaints, which is also a subject for the call for evidence. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough raised issues about training—again, that is a matter for the call for evidence.
The independent regulator, which is part of our consultation, was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Henley and for Harborough, and by the hon. Members for Coventry South, for Wolverhampton North East, for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue). The treatment of vulnerable people was raised by the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), and that is also covered in the call for evidence, which is running for 12 weeks until 17 February 2019. As part of that, we are meeting representatives from the advice sector to get a better understanding of the research they have conducted and their concerns, and we will also be talking to enforcement agents and creditors. However, the call for evidence is not just about collecting data; we are very keen to hear from people about their individual experiences. A number of hon. Members have shared the experiences of their constituents, whom I encourage to respond to our call for evidence.
I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to meet the hon. Member for Croydon Central and her constituents the Rogers family, who sadly lost Jerome following visits to their home by enforcement agents. Like others, I am pleased to see them here today. I thank them for their contribution to this important issue and for their continuing efforts to highlight this matter.
A number of hon. Members have suggested that the Government’s reforms should go further by introducing an independent regulator, and that there should be a simpler, free and independent complaints procedure. As set out in the call for evidence, we are considering these suggestions. The call for evidence asks whether independent regulation is needed and, if so, what form that should take and how it should be funded. We would welcome any input on all those questions. It also asks about the complaints procedure, as I have said.
In addition to reviewing the behaviour of enforcement agents, the Government are working more widely to help people who fall into problem debt by providing them with protection and ensuring that creditors are acting responsibly. For example, the Government are increasing funding for free debt advice via the Money Advice Service, which will spend £56 million this year to help more than half a million people. After consultation, and via regulations to be laid this year, the Government will implement their 2017 manifesto commitment to introduce a breathing space in order to give people in serious debt the right to legal protections from their creditors for up to six weeks. We will also introduce a statutory debt repayment plan to enable those with unmanageable debts to enter into an agreement to pay their debts in a realistic timeframe. The Ministry of Justice is a member of the Government’s Fairness Group, which works with the advice sector to look at the issue of fairness in Government debt management and in enforcement practices.
I would like to end by commenting on the cross-party support to address this important issue. It has been invaluable to me, and I am sure to others, to hear not only people’s tragic personal stories, but articulate and thoughtful arguments about the principle behind these issues.
Will the Minister meet her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to discuss possession orders and assist local authorities in rehousing people before such a possession order is escalated to the High Court? That would ensure that they were removed from a property immediately, preventing the hardship and stress that many people experience.
I note that my hon. Friend made a very eloquent speech on that subject, which we can of course look into.
Enforcement agents play an important role in recovering money. It is a matter of regret that some are not behaving as they should, and that many members of the public do not hold them in high regard. It is vital that the public have confidence in them.
I thank the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East for the opportunity to respond to this debate, and I look forward to the finalisation and conclusion of the call for evidence on how we can take this matter forward.
I thank Members from across the House, including our Front-Bench spokesperson and the Minister, for contributing to this debate. They have given such powerful examples of bailiffs’ poor, aggressive and intimidating behaviour. What has been striking about this debate—it is not always the case in this place—is the cross-party consensus that the current system of self-regulation is not working. There is a need for an independent regulator, a clear and simple complaints procedure, the training of bailiffs and better protection for vulnerable people.
I welcome the Government’s call for evidence and the Justice Committee’s inquiry, which has just started. We must see this issue in the wider context of rising household debt, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). The need for change is urgent. We have to do more to root out aggressive and intimidating behaviour. We have to address the anomaly that somehow bailiffs are not properly regulated but debt advice charities and debt collection agencies are. Above all we must ensure that, in a civilised society, everybody is treated with respect. The focus should be on helping people who get into debt to get out of debt, not forcing them into a spiral of despair, which in some cases has led to the most tragic events, as we have heard, with Jerome Rogers taking his own life.
I know that the Minister is listening to Members of different parties, and I thank her for doing that. I hope that after the call for evidence, the Government can quickly put in place these reforms, for which there is cross-party support. I hope that we can work together to ensure that this aggressive behaviour is rooted out.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered bailiff regulatory reform.