Debt fears raised over return to work by bailiffs

The government is being urged to step in and regulate the debt-collection industry as bailiffs gear up to start pursuing unpaid bills and fines again.

The Civil Enforcement Association (Civea) says debt collection on behalf of local authorities and the courts will resume under a “post-lockdown support plan”, and it says it has consulted the government on its plan. People who have missed payments should receive letters asking them how they have been affected by the pandemic.

“Civea members fully accept that to simply restart enforcement visits once the government eases restrictions without understanding how people have been impacted by the crisis would not be acceptable,” said Civea chief executive Russell Hamblin-Boone.

“The measures included in the post-lockdown support plan are a sensible and proactive response to an exceptional situation. Enforcement of public debt continues to be an important service to recover outstanding taxes and fines, which contributes to funding essential local services. Our plan allows us to carry out our civic duties in line with public health advice.”

But Peter Tutton, of debt charity Stepchange, said the industry had a record that did not inspire confidence in a return to operations.

“While we welcome Civea’s pledge to treat those affected by covid-19 with additional consideration, we cannot entrust the duty of care of financially vulnerable people to an unregulated industry whose collection practices have caused significant harm in the past,” he said.

“Any return to enforcement action, phased or otherwise, must be preceded by government-led measures that protect those affected by covid-19. This includes putting affordable repayment plans in place for council tax arrears before resorting to enforcement action, and taking into account vulnerability and financial circumstances before acting.”

Mr Tutton said it was time for the government to take a firmer handle on how the debt-collection industry operated.

“Alongside temporary measures to help those affected by the pandemic, the government must finally act to regulate the bailiff industry and bring the sector up to the standards of consumer protection common elsewhere in debt recovery,” he said. “With millions of people struggling with covid-19-related debts, it is unfair and unsafe for the government to restart enforcement without these safeguards.”

Civea members take enforcement action against people with overdue council tax and business rates, parking fines and court fines.

The trade body said its members would be given mandatory training on how to protect themselves and people they encounter. All visits should be contactless and bailiffs should not enter premises to seize goods. Civea has also pledged that, “where appropriate”, vulnerable people or people severely impacted financially by the pandemic will be referred to debt-advice agencies.