Joanna Elson OBE, Chief Executive, Money Advice Trust
Local and national action needed to improve debt collection practices
3 October 2019
Two weeks ago, the Money Advice Trust published our latest Stop The Knock research into the scale of bailiff use by councils in England and Wales.
We know how harmful bailiff action is to people in debt from what our advisers hear at National Debtline and Business Debtline (both of which are run by Money Advice Trust). The financial impact, through the addition of bailiff fees and charges can deepen someone’s debt problems, while a bailiff’s visit can impact people’s emotional health as well.
Of National Debtline callers who have experienced bailiff action, 83% of those surveyed reported a negative impact on their wellbeing. Increased stress, anxiety, and sleepless nights are common issues we hear about as a result of bailiff action, as well in some cases the worsening of peoples’ mental health conditions.
The research, based on responses to Freedom of Information requests we made to all councils in England and Wales, revealed that overall bailiff use by councils rose seven percent in the last two years. In total, councils made 2.6 million referrals to bailiffs last year alone – a figure that should concern us all.
Six years on from when we first carried out this research, some modest improvements in debt collection practice have taken place in some areas. However, too many councils continue to rely too heavily on enforcement action.
I want to share with you the key findings from our research, and what action we think is needed.
Understanding the scale of the issue
While the overall figure of 2.6 million referrals remains too high and an overall increase of 7% is concerning, beneath these overall figures lies a much more nuanced picture. The increase is largely driven by bailiff use for parking penalty charge notices (PCN) – nearly 1.1 million parking debts were sent to bailiffs in 2018/19, a rise of 21 percent on two years earlier.
The number of council tax debts passed to bailiffs, however, has remained stable for the first time in our research – compared to a 10 percent surge in the preceding two year period. The 1.4 million referrals made in 2018/19 are still too many, but this stabilisation suggests that the combined efforts of the advice sector to improve debt collection practices is beginning to have some effect.
Small improvements in practice
In the last two years, more than half (51 percent) reduced their use of bailiffs, up from 38 percent two years ago. This limited progress made by individual councils shows that reducing bailiff use can be done.
Our research also maps debt collection practices across England and Wales. This included gathering information on signposting to debt advice and whether a council has adopted best practice on affordability, vulnerability and in other areas. More councils have adopted best practice on affordability and vulnerability in the last two years, and 64 said they have now signed up to the Citizens Advice and Local Government Association Council Tax Protocol with a further 23 considering doing so.
Local and national action needed
Despite this modest progress, the pace of improvement is too slow. Policy changes at a local and national level are needed. Following our latest Stop The Knock research, we have written to council leaders and the Minister for Local Government to recommend:
- all councils should adopt our ‘six steps’ to improve their debt collection practices, as used by many individuals councils and recently endorsed by the Welsh Government
- Government should review and amend the 1992 council tax regulations, as well as introducing and funding a requirement for all councils to provide 100% Council Tax Support schemes
- And on the use of bailiffs to enforce parking debts, government should review the enforcement of Parking Penalty Charge Notices bringing this into line with County Court Judgments (CCJs) to include allowing people to apply to pay through affordable instalments.
Crucially, the government also needs to take action to reform bailiff action itself.
As we and our partner charities in the Taking Control group, including Money and Mental Health, have long advocated, fundamental bailiff reform is overdue. This should include independent bailiff regulation and an accompanying free, independent complaints mechanism – calls now supported by MPs on the Justice Select Committee.
With the Ministry of Justice reviewing the case for bailiff regulation, and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government reviewing council tax collection, we hope our latest research will be useful in pressing home the case for change.
In the meantime, please do take a look at our online mapping tool at www.stoptheknock.org to explore individual councils’ debt collection practices, download the report and review our recommendations in full.
Joanna Elson OBE is Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust.