You’d have to work really hard to find a racket that would make Al Capone blush. But we think we’ve done it.
Anyone who has ever tried to reason with a bailiff would agree that it’s not the easiest job, as the only thing they really have other than a yearning to intimidate is the Nuremburg defence: ‘I’m just doing my job.’
The helplessness of both parties in debt collection situations tells us the problem emanates from higher up the chain. This week on Renegade Inc we ask: how did Britain’s bailiff culture emerge and what can be done about it?
The privatisation of debt collection in Britain has resulted in a boom for the bailiff industry. Surprisingly, the state has been a major player in that boom. Over 300 UK local authorities outsourced their debt collection to private bailiffs in 2014-15.
Over two million debt collection referrals took place over that 12-month period, which works out to more than six new debt enforcement instructions every minute. This is why the industry is seeing double digit growth year-on-year. But at what social cost?
Alison Blackwood, Senior Policy & Campaigns Advocate at StepChange Debt Charity says there has been a massive increase in calls for debt advice over the last three-to-four years.
“Our charity particularly deals with people in that problem,” she said. “On average they owe money to five or six different people, and that’s a particular problem when you have bailiffs chasing after a person and that’s what usually happens is people end up taking out credit to pay off the bailiffs and the bailiffs are the most threatening and intimidating form of debt collection. So they will probably be the ones that people try to pay off first which means they’ll take out more credits to try and pay off the bailiffs, or else stop paying other bills for essentials like food, or electricity, or gas.”
Bailiffs add huge fees to the debt. For a bailiff to notify the client that the debt has been taken on by them, they add a 75 pound fee. If it gets to the stage where the bailiff actually has to come around to the house, another 235 pounds are added on.
“A lot of our clients had debts that started off at 100 pounds and then by that stage they’ve just had 310 added on to the debt purely in bailiff fees,” says Blackwood.
The Ministry of Justice originally set the fee pricing, and were calculated on bailiffs making a 5% profit but this was on figures given to the Ministry of Justice by bailiff companies.
The charity suspects that the prices were inflated.
“There’s some indication that in recent years, since the new fee structure was put in place in 2014, that bailiff profits have increased,” says Blackwood.
Changes in legislation providing has allowed greater profits for these businesses.
“In addition to that, the bailiffs themselves are self-employed and often they’re not paid by the companies until they’ve collected the debt in full,” says Blackwood. “So there’s big incentive for them instead of agreeing an affordable payment plan over several months so people can spread out the cost of repaying the debt, they ask for the money all at once which really puts people under pressure. That’s when they go and take out payday loans or borrow massive amounts from friends and family. It’s difficult for them to pay back.”
In many cases these bailiffs, largely nightclub bouncers and former military types have literally marched people down to the ATM. Debtees will withdraw 400 pound at a time to get people off their cases. Often it is not even they who owe the debt but a family member.
“We have really terrible examples and regularly we have clients ringing in to complain about the behaviour of the bailiffs. We’ve had examples of threats, the use of threatening language. Often we have situations where the debt is owned by a son or daughter but the bailiffs identify often elderly or disabled parents and start turning up at their houses and the people are so scared that they go to the cashpoint machine and just pay that debt.
Lots of people don’t know that you don’t have to let the bailiff in, especially at the first visit would be very rare as well. The bailiff will be given a court order that forced entry into the house at that stage.”
Blackwood says she’s had clients reporting bailiffs turning up at their place of work, harassing their neighbours, showing up at family members’ houses.
“One client I remember in particular was very concerned that her boss would actually sack her because he found out that she was in debt and the only reason he knew that was because the bailiff turned up at the at the workplace. That should never happen. It is against regulations.”
Lois Austin is an officer at the Public and Commercial Services Union, the union which represents staff in the Ministry of Justice. Austin and her colleagues represent staff who work for the court service.
PCSU currently has 200 civilian enforcement officers who are bailiffs who work for and are employed by the court. They are civil servants and salaried staff who work under regulation including the auspices of the civil service codes and a code of practice that governs bailiffs.
On August 1st, the Ministry of Justice announced the PCSU would be put out to tender, inviting the private sector to do that work.
“So the 200 or so civilian enforcement officers that we currently have that worked for the court could soon be working for a private bailiff company,” says Austin. “Now they don’t want to do it. They are civil servants. They are proud to be working as part of the public sector. They believe that they do a job which is about administering justice, as opposed to making a profit for themselves or a private bailiff company. They don’t want to go to the private sector. They’ve chosen to work in the public sector and they don’t want to go.
“But if the contract is handed to a private company they will be forced to work for a private sector company which is why the PCS is committed to trying to stop privatisation.
“It’s incredible that the government are considering privatising a part of the Ministry of Justice, or part of the justice system at a time when the horror stories as to what private bailiffs are up to are an all time high.”
Austin said she spoke to some civilian enforcement officers in preparation for this week’s episode and they informed her that some work already being done by private bailiffs because the Ministry of Justice under this government have driven down resources.
“There just aren’t enough of them so they’ve been forced to give work to private bailiff companies,” she said. “Our civilian enforcement officers say the work that they’re given is quite often not done, it’s incomplete. So it comes back to the court and the court staff who work in the administration of the fine. The civilian enforcement officers have to do the leg work on the phone and door-knocking chasing fines and repayments because these private companies are not up to doing it.
“But also they themselves say there are horror stories with private bailiff companies that the courts currently use where they, for example, just go for the soft touch stuff like going after a single mum who has stolen food from a supermarket because she can’t afford to feed her kids in in austerity Britain.They go after somebody like that rather than a hardened criminal for example who’s been given a fine by the court in lieu of a prison sentence. It’s much more difficult to get a fine off a hardened criminal.”
The union believes that the privatisation of civilian enforcement functions could end up costing the public sector more money.
“You’ll end up having to involve police officers to go after the hardened criminals and their fines,” says Austin. “And also they’ll be more committed to prisons because you’ll have bailiffs going after the soft stuff, not after the hardened criminals. They won’t pay their fines and then they’ll be committed to prison. And at that point you would have to involve the police service and you would have to involve the prison service if this does go out to tender and if they do privatise it.
“The way that private bailiff companies will make money out of these contracts is by chasing as many soft fines as they can, leaving the biggest stuff for the state to deal with.”
Blackwood says civil servant enforcement officers are actually regulated by the Ministry of Justice, they’re regularly monitored and their behaviour has to be up to a certain standard.
But in the private sector, there is no independent regulator for enforcement agents.
“There is no one there to really monitor them,” she says. “The complaints process is really obscure, very difficult and not at all open. It is very difficult to see how many complaints are made about bailiffs each year.”
The PCSU successfully fought the privatisation of civil enforcement a number of years ago, only to find the Ministry of Justice coming back and saying they want to privatise just the civilian enforcement functions.
“Public sector civilian enforcement officers have powers of arrest, they have powers to enter premises and to search premises.
They actually have powers at the moment that private officers don’t have.
What we want to know from the Ministry of Justice is whether private bailiff companies will have the same powers.
“The civilian enforcement officers also have access to government databases so they can look at records at the DWP or HMRC: tax records, social security. They also have access to the national police computer. Do we want private bailiff companies to have access to the police national computer? I don’t think we do, which is why stopping this privatisation is so important.”
Watch the full episode of Renegade Inc above to discover what an incredibly slippery slope this really is. We talk to James Miller whose personal bailiff experience is frankly, extraordinary.