Kate Langston, External Affairs Officer, Money and Mental Health

Important steps towards stamping out bad bailiff behaviour

11 March 2019

Earlier this year, we came together with leading charities in the debt advice sector to call on the government to take action to tackle harmful behaviour in the bailiff industry. This was in response to the launch of a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) review of the sector, and marked a significant milestone in the campaign for bailiff reform.

This week, we welcomed two big announcements on the issue of debt collection that point to progress toward improving practices in this area. Not only did the government unveil new guidelines for the way council tax debts are collected, but the influential Justice Select Committee also published the findings of a recent inquiry into the bailiff industry. In both cases, it seems politicians are waking up to the need for change.

The campaign for bailiff reform

We know from our research that a visit from bailiffs can have potentially devastating consequences for someone struggling with their mental health and debt. The prospect of someone turning up at the door, demanding payment or threatening to take away possessions, can trigger panic attacks, worsen symptoms of depression, and even lead to thoughts of suicide.

Research by other charities also indicates that rule breaking is widespread in the industry, with reports of bailiffs acting aggressively and failing to make adjustments for people considered to be vulnerable – including those experiencing mental health problems. Anyone wishing to complain about poor bailiff behaviour also faces a number of barriers, such as navigating the complaints policies of individual bailiff firms, or going through the courts.

That’s why we’ve been working with our partners in the Taking Control campaign to make the case for bailiff reform. In particular, we’ve been calling on the government to make two key changes: i) introduce an independent regulator for the bailiff industry, to ensure that firms and individual bailiffs stick to the rules, and ii) establish an independent complaints process to ensure people can get redress when rules are broken.

Piling on the pressure

The ongoing MoJ review presents a crucial window to persuade the government of the need for reform. So when we learnt in December that Parliament’s Justice Select Committee was launching its own inquiry into the bailiff industry alongside the government review, we were keen to use this opportunity to build support for our campaign.

We joined fellow Taking Control members in submitting evidence to the inquiry setting out our proposed reforms. And reading through today’s report from the committee, we were delighted to see that they appears to have taken our recommendations onboard, calling for the creation of both an independent complaints body and a regulator for the industry.

Coming from such an influential, cross party group of MPs, this new report provides a valuable demonstration of political support for reform, adding to the pressure on government to act.

A government in listening mode?

This week also saw the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government announce plans to publish new guidance to protect people against “aggressive debt enforcement” by local authorities. Research by the Money Advice Trust found that councils referred 2.3 million debts to bailiffs in 2016/17 alone. And given the strong links between mental health problems and debt, it is likely that many of these cases will have involved someone who was struggling with their mental health, and who may be at increased risk of harm from aggressive collection activity.

It is therefore positive to see that the new guidelines will require councils to make their debt collection practices “fairer” and more compassionate. Full details of the guidance are yet to be published, but we hope this marks the beginning of a broader government move to improve the way that debts are collected across the board. With the MoJ expected to publish the findings of its bailiff review before the summer, there is a real opportunity to for the government to take major steps towards ending threatening and illegal bailiff behaviour. We will continue working with our campaign partners over the coming months to press for reform.