CAB and Debt Collection
Around eighty percent of bailiff recovered debt is to local authorities for Council Tax arrears and parking penalties, but bailiff action can also be unacceptably aggressive as a recent Government consultation recognises. Citizens Advice have long had concerns about the practices of private bailiffs acting for public sector creditors. Our evidence suggests inappropriate bailiff behaviour can have a particularly adverse effect on people with cancer or mental health issues, pregnant women, or single parent families. For example:
- A CAB in the East Midlands saw a single woman who lived alone. She was unable to work due to epilepsy and bi-polar disorder. She had left her husband in 2011 and no longer knew where he was. She had recently been traced by the local authority for council tax arrears she was unaware she and her husband owed from 2007/8, as her husband had paid all the bills when they lived together. She subsequently received a demand from bailiffs demanding payment of £684.62 within 48 hours. The demand was addressed to her and her ex husband threatening removal of goods in their absence.
- When the bailiff was contacted by the client, she was told they would come with a lock smith to gain entry. A few days later, she received another demand this time for £559.62 - giving her 7 days to pay. The client was very anxious and concerned about what the bailiffs might do. She was so stressed by contact with the bailiffs that she had an epileptic fit while on the phone to them.
So how can public authorities’ debt collection practices be adjusted to take account of the experience of people with these vulnerabilities and meet the due regard standard of the PSED? Bailiffs companies themselves are only lightly regulated and even the voluntary code (the National Standards for Enforcement Agents) lacks any significant reference to the Equality Act or other public law duties. Local authorities contracting arrangements with private bailiffs often lack transparency and there is little by way of available good practice protocols. Yet these are precisely the sort of policies and practices that the PSED could and should have an impact on – and our evidence suggests that it could improve collection rates.
Citizens Advice have worked with the Local Government Association to produce a Good practice protocol on collection of council tax arrears which provides for partnership arrangements between advice bodies and local authorities, minimum standards around information to debtors, information exchange and procedures for identifying and dealing with vulnerable persons/households. Where this protocol was put in place (Bath, Northunberland, Nottinghamshire) evaluations showed that healthy council tax collection rates were maintained and sometimes even improved. This is supported by feedback from bureaux involved in such arrangements in many other locations.
 Source: Public Sector Equality Duty: Submission to Government Equalities Office Review, Citizen’s Advice [April 2013]
 Transforming Bailiff Action Ministry of Justice 2011