Charity warns of 'bailiff boom'

BailiffFears of a "bailiff boom" as soaring numbers of people struggle to cope with council tax benefit cuts have been raised by a debt advice charity.

Citizens Advice warned that "many more" vulnerable people were in danger of being pushed into the hands of bailiffs, which it said often overstated their powers, acted aggressively and piled on excessive fees and charges.
The charity was seeing evidence that the number of people worried about paying their council tax had "rocketed" since Government welfare reforms were introduced last month.

Some 37,000 people consulted its online advice pages about council tax in April - representing an 87% increase compared with the same month last year. The charity said that anecdotally, increasing numbers of people were coming through the doors of some of its bureaux who were struggling to pay their council tax, although it was too early to give figures at this stage.
Council tax benefit was replaced by council tax support last month, which allows councils in England to run their own schemes but on 10% less funding than they had previously. Citizens Advice warned that the changes risked stoking a "boom time for bailiffs". It was braced for an influx of people being chased by bailiffs after being pushed into arrears by the changes and urged councils to use them only as a "last resort".

Citizens Advice said it had seen a 38% increase in complaints about private bailiffs over the last five years. Almost nine in 10 bailiff problems the charity deals with relate to private bailiffs, who collect debts such as council tax and parking penalties. One third of the 60,000-plus complaints the charity received in the last financial year about bailiffs were related to people with council tax debts.

The charity's chief executive, Gillian Guy, said: "Bailiffs will see their profits rise at the expense of hard-pressed households. We're concerned that changes to council tax benefit will mean more people will end up in debt because they can't pay their bill and have the bailiff knocking at the door. The number of people worried about council tax is up 87% since the changes came in, and this will climb even higher as more people find it difficult to cope with the costs. Bailiffs often overstate their powers, deliberately frighten debtors and charge extortionate fees."

Citizens Advice wants councils to sign up to a "good practice" document which was drawn up jointly with the Local Government Association (LGA) and aims to strengthen co-operation between councils and debt advice bodies and lessen the chances of councils turning to bailiffs.

Local government minister Brandon Lewis said: "Spending on council tax benefit doubled under the last administration, costing taxpayers £4 billion a year - equivalent to almost £180 a year per household. Welfare reform is vital to tackle the budget deficit. Our reforms to localise council tax support now give councils stronger incentives to support local firms, cut fraud, promote local enterprise and get people into work. We are ending the 'something for nothing' culture and making work pay. Councils have set up their own council tax support schemes and should have taken into account the impact on vulnerable people. For those facing genuine hardship, there are free advice services who can offer help and support, and many councils have put in place hardship funds to provide financial assistance to people in difficult circumstances."

Mr Lewis said it is important for councils to be sympathetic to those in "genuine hardship" and take proportionate enforcement action and not overuse bailiffs. He said: "The coalition Government has taken action to rein in aggressive bailiffs."

10 consumer rights you should know
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Charity warns of 'bailiff boom'

The law states that any goods you buy from a UK retailer should be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and last a reasonable amount of time.

This applies even if you buy items in a sale or with a discount voucher. You may have to insist on these rights being respected, though.

Useful phrases to use when you want to show you mean business include, "according to the Sale of Goods Act 1979" and, if it's a service, "according to the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982".

Some shops will allow you to exchange goods without a receipt, but they can refuse to should they wish.

If the goods are faulty, however, another proof of purchase such as a bank statement should work just as well.

If you attempt to return goods within four weeks of the purchase, your chances of getting a full refund are much higher as you can argue that you have not "accepted" them.

After this point, you can only really expect an exchange, repair or part-refund.

The updated Consumer Credit Act states that card companies are jointly and severally liable for credit card purchases of between £100 and £60,260 (whether or not you paid just a deposit or the whole amount on your card).

Anyone spending between these amounts on their credit card is therefore protected if the retailer or service provider goes bust, their online shopping never arrives or the items in question are faulty or not as described.

Start by writing to the agency asking it to either remove or change the entry that you think is wrong. It will investigate the matter and find out whether you have been the victim of ID theft or a bank's mistake.

Within 28 days from receipt of your letter the agency should tell you how the bank has responded. If the bank agrees to change the entry, they will authorise the agency to update their records. They should also send updates to any other credit reference agencies they use.

You can also contact your lender directly to query a mistake. If the lender agrees to the discrepancy, ask them to confirm this in writing on their letterhead and send a copy to the agency, asking them to update your file.

The FOS settles disputes between financial companies such as banks and consumers.

If a financial organisation rejects a complaint you make about its services, you can therefore escalate that complaint to the FOS - as long as you have given the company in question at least eight weeks to respond.

The FOS will then investigate the case, and could force the company to offer you compensation should it see fit.

Bailiffs are allowed to take some of your belongings to sell on to cover certain debts, including unpaid Council Tax and parking fines.

They can, for example, take so-called luxury items such as TVs or games consoles. However, they cannot take essentials such as fridges or clothes.

What's more, they can only generally enter your home to take your stuff if you leave a door or window open or invite them in.

You are therefore within your rights to refuse them access and to ask for related documents such as proof of their identity. If they try to force their way in, you can also call the police to stop them.

Private sector debt collectors do not have the same powers as bailiffs, whatever they tell you.

They cannot, for example, enter your home and take your possessions in lieu of payment.

In fact, they can only write, phone, or visit your home to talk to you about paying back the debt. As with bailiffs, you can also call the police if you feel physically threatened.

Thanks to the Distance Selling Regulations, you actually have more rights buying online or by phone than on the High Street.

You can, for example, send most goods back within a week, for a full refund (including outward delivery costs), even if there's no fault.

You will usually need to pay for the return delivery, though. The seller must then refund you within 30 days.

We enter into contracts all the time, whether it be to join a gym, switch energy supplier or take out a loan.

In most cases, once you've signed a contract, you are legally bound by it. In some situations, however, you have the right to cancel it within a certain timeframe.

Credit agreements, for example, can be cancelled within 14 days. And online retailers must tell you about your cancellation rights for any contract made up to stand up legally.

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