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Charities voice fears about bailiffs' behaviour despite crackdown

Charities say they are continuing to see widespread problems with the behaviour of bailiffs towards vulnerable people in financial difficulty, despite a crackdown on the issue.

Bodies including StepChange Debt Charity, the Children's Society, Christians Against Poverty, Citizens Advice and the Money Advice Trust (MAT) have compiled evidence of ongoing problems in the bailiff industry.

Their report claims people with money problems are not being adequately protected from unfair treatment, despite legal changes in 2014 covering bailiffs in England and Wales.

In 2013, the Government committed to strengthening protections against aggressive bailiffs, saying that while bailiffs are necessary for the economy and the justice system, a significant few were using intimidating behaviour, treating debtors unfairly and causing unnecessary distress.

But the charities' report claims the reforms "have had only minimal impact".

It calls for the bailiff industry to be independently regulated and a free, clear process to complain about bailiffs.

The charities have written to Justice Secretary Liz Truss urging a fundamental reform of bailiff law.

Joanna Elson, chief executive of the MAT, the charity that runs National Debtline, said: "Concerns over the impact of the bailiff's knock at the door have long been raised by debt advice charities, based on the experiences of our clients week in, week out.

"Unfortunately, changes to the law in 2014 have failed to protect people in debt from poor practice, and we continue to see widespread problems with the behaviour of bailiffs and bailiff firms."

Research for the report among 1,400 people who had been visited by a bailiff in the last six months found nearly a quarter (24%) had tried to arrange repayment over the phone but found the bailiff insisted on visiting anyway.

The report said the structure of bailiffs' fees acts as an incentive to visit people's homes.

Nearly a fifth (17%) of those surveyed said they were not contacted by the bailiff before they visited.

Mike O'Connor, chief executive of StepChange Debt Charity, said: "Our research shows that the 2014 bailiff reforms are not working.

"The reforms have not delivered the improvements that are needed and they are failing some of the most vulnerable people in our society."

The report also claims that the scale of bailiff use is significant and growing. Last year, Citizens Advice helped people with 82,000 issues related to bailiff action - with 57,000 issues related to bailiff enforcement of council tax debt alone.

Research from the MAT found that local authorities in England and Wales passed on 2.1 million debts to bailiffs in the space of just 12 months in 2014-15. This was a 16% increase over a two-year period.

Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: " Local authorities have a key role to play in stamping out bad practices - by treating people in arrears fairly and ensuring bailiffs are only ever used as a last resort."

The report, called Taking Control, is also backed by charities AdviceUK and Z2K.

The charities have also launched a website - www.bailiffreform.org - allowing people visited by bailiffs to share their experiences.

The Government intends to publish a review of the 2014 bailiff reforms.

An HM Courts and Tribunals spokeswoman said: "The Government is clear that aggressive enforcement action is not acceptable.

"Protecting the rights of the public is our top priority, which is why we've introduced robust rules on what goods an enforcement agent can or cannot take, how and when they can enter premises and what fees they can charge."

Claire Kober, chairwoman of the Local Government Association's resources board, said: "Anyone who feels a bailiff acting on behalf of a local authority has acted illegally, or that they have suffered unacceptable behaviour, bullying or intimidation, should contact the council concerned immediately to raise their concerns. "

Vernon Phillips, director general of the Civil Enforcement Association (CIVEA), which represents private sector agents, said: "It's clear from the most recent local authority survey evidence that the system is working better than before the new regulations came into force, but we are keen to ensure any continuing concerns are tackled effectively.

"We are currently in conversation with the advice sector organisations, and we are hoping that they will be able to share specific evidence with us of where practice can be improved, so that we can work with them to do that."

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