Money Advice Trust chief executive Joanna Elson OBE questions the planned resumption of bailiff visits, now just two weeks away.
In April, the Government passed emergency legislation to temporarily ban bailiff visits – rightly recognising that, with the country facing both the health and financial impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak, it would be inappropriate for bailiffs to be turning up at people’s homes, demanding payment and taking control of goods.
The ban, coupled with other pauses on collection and enforcement activity, has undoubtedly given people much needed protection, and the Ministry of Justice deserves credit for putting it in place.
However, in June, the Government introduced further legislation that means the ban on visits will come to an end on the 23rd August – now less than two weeks away.
The risks around bailiff visits remain
When the temporary ban was introduced, the Ministry of Justice acknowledged that the nature of bailiff visits – going between people’s homes, with little or no advanced knowledge of people’s circumstances (such as underlying health conditions) – means they can present a high risk to public health. Indeed, the Government expressed concern that incentives in the industryand “financial pressures [from firms and creditors]” would create the risk of poor practice “which could endanger the health of both enforcement agents and debtors”.
Given this acknowledgement that bailiff visits are high-risk, the resumption of these visits should be being treated with great caution. However the Ministry of Justice has not, so far, set out any guidance for how bailiffs should operate, or how they will oversee the industry to ensure rules intended to curb unacceptable or threatening behaviour by bailiffs are being followed.
While bailiff visits will inevitably resume at some point, this cannot be allowed in a way that may put people at risk, especially when the public health and financial considerations that led to the original ban are still so significant. Alongside other debt advice charities, we’ve asked officials and Ministers to take urgent action to address these concerns before visits resume after 23rd August.
Here are three questions we’ve asked the Ministry of Justice to answer.
- What directions and oversight will be put in place to protect people’s safety?
Right now, it’s more important than ever that bailiff visits are used as an absolute last resort. It’s vital that the Government ensures bailiffs are making all reasonable attempts to put in place affordable payment plans, so that there’s no need for a visit in the first place. The current bailiff fee structure can incentivise bailiffs to move quickly to the visits stage, so strong oversight is needed to ensure this doesn’t happen.
On a more practical note, there are numerous public health questions that still need answering, such as how bailiffs can operate in a ‘Covid-secure’ way, what happens if a bailiff tests positive for coronavirus (will they have to pass details of those they’ve visited to NHS Test and Trace), and whether it’s right for bailiff visits to continue in areas where local restrictions are re-imposed.
2. What protections will be in place for vulnerable people, including people who have been shielding and those facing financial hardship?
The Government needs to make it clear that bailiffs must take all reasonable steps to establish people’s circumstances before they even consider visiting anyone. Those with health conditions, or experiencing financial difficulty, need to be treated sympathetically. In many situations, this will mean that their case should be passed back to their original creditor, rather than being subject to bailiff action at all.
3. Will the Government seize this opportunity to move forward with independent regulation of the bailiff sector?
This is perhaps the most important question. The issues we’ve seen around visits resuming are, unfortunately, indicative of a much wider problem with the current self-regulation of the bailiff sector: it offers little protection to those facing financial hardship and results in widespread poor practice.
Again, this is something the Government has itself recognised. In 2018, a call for evidence on the bailiff sector was launched. In July 2019, the Government said they “believe that regulation of this sector could be strengthened” and would take more steps to do so. But we’re still waiting, and when bailiff visits resume after the 23rd August, it will be over 18 months since the call for evidence closed and no response has been forthcoming.
Introducing independent regulation would tackle these issues and more: ensuring consistent, effective oversight, stamping out poor practice and leading to better outcomes for both creditors and people in debt.
Less than two weeks to go
More immediately, with less than two weeks until bailiff visits resume we need urgent assurances that protections will be put in place – for reasons of both public health and the protection of people in financial difficulty at this extraordinarily difficult time.
In the absence of these protections, the resumption of bailiff visits after 23rd August should not be allowed to go ahead.