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House of Lords Hansard
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17 October 2019
Volume 800

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to publish policy recommendations following their consultation on the review of bailiff reforms, which closed on 17 February.

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My Lords, in a Statement on 22 July, the Government set out their initial response to the call for evidence on the enforcement agent reforms. We intend to make body-worn cameras mandatory for private enforcement agents and the complaints system against agents more effective. We are also considering strengthening regulation of the industry. Officials have since met further with a range of stakeholders; we hope to set out our proposals as soon as possible.

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My Lords, as we debate Brexit for hours and days on end, some of the most vulnerable people in our country are suffering. Every minute of every day, somebody in dire poverty is suffering the humiliation and fear of a bailiff banging on their door. In about 300,000 cases a year, the bailiffs break the rules. Self-regulation is not working. They may send strings of texts to the person concerned threatening that the whole debt must be paid immediately—or else. None of that is legal, and none of it will be resolved by body-worn cameras. The Justice Committee reported on the bailiff problem in April and recommended an independent regulator. Twenty organisations worked for two years on this and came to the same conclusion. Will the Minister be so kind as to meet at least two of the main experts and me to discuss the best way forward on this very tricky issue?

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My Lords, we appreciate the work done by the Justice Committee, which was published in April 2018, and have taken up some of its recommendations already. There are discrepancies over the number of complaints, but that may in part be explained by difficulties that some people perceive in following through on complaints. We are concerned when enforcement officers do not comply with the law and with regulations, but we must remember that there is not only a group of people out there who are “can’t pays” but a very large group who are “won’t pays”. Individuals and small businesses need the ability to recover money lawfully due to them. I am happy to meet the noble Baroness and her experts and associates to discuss the matter further.

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My Lords, while creditors are entitled to take steps to obtain money properly due to them, does the noble and learned Lord agree that what is not legitimate is the harassment and bullying perpetrated by some bailiffs and some of the profit-driven organisations that employ them? Will he go beyond an expression of concern and tell the House more fully what the Government intend to do to improve this culture and to ensure that those bailiffs who commit excesses are brought to book?

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My Lords, there are regulations in place and there are those—a minority—who do not comply with those regulations. The position at present is that there are about 2,500 civil enforcement agents. They have to appear before a county court judge every two years, where their conduct will be the subject of consideration. We are looking at further regulation and at the means of ensuring that a small minority of enforcement agents do not break the law. Clearly, we do not condone aggressive and inappropriate behaviour, no matter what the circumstances may be.

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My Lords, the Government are publicly committed to ensuring that enforcement agents treat debtors fairly, responsibly and proportionately. The proposed breathing space scheme, the Government’s civil enforcement project and, indeed, the Minister’s answers so far suggest that they also agree on the need for a sympathetic approach to problem debt. Will the Government therefore now consider requiring enforcement agents to advise debtors of the availability of the breathing space scheme and of debt management assistance more generally? Are the Government now more receptive to the call of many for independent regulation of all enforcement agencies?

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It would be premature to commit on a matter still under consideration by the ministry. We have proposed as a manifesto commitment to introduce the breathing space scheme, which will give debtors 60 days in which interest charges on their debts are frozen and in which they can seek further advice. We also established the Money and Pensions Service in January 2019, merging three former organisations to provide free-to-use financial guidance for those who find themselves in debt.

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My Lords, I think I am right that paragraph 14 of Magna Carta undertakes to halt unreasonable and unfair bailiff entry behaviour. Do we not need to proceed rather carefully on this matter?

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I bow to the noble Lord’s detailed knowledge of Magna Carta on this point.

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My Lords, with enormous respect to the Government Bench, those who will not pay are probably very familiar with Magna Carta and their rights. It is those who are vulnerable and those able to offer reasonable repayment terms who are being treated rather harshly. Clearly, cameras will help in this process but when the review comes out, will it specifically address reasonable repayment schemes?

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The Government have established a fairness group, which is working with the advice sector to implement a joint programme of work to examine practices in the context of, for example, the recovery of debt due to central and local government, and to support vulnerable people in the context of such debt. We are taking steps to try to accommodate those in a difficult or vulnerable position and unable to meet their debt liabilities. We continue to look at ways of improving that sort of facility.