The booming multi-million pound bailiff industry is leaving Britons feeling threatened and powerless. And thanks to increasing numbers reaching the end of their financial tether, thousands more are at the mercy of the bailiffs.
So just how bad have things become, and what are your rights?
Figures suggest the five biggest bailiff companies earn a combined revenue in excess of £60 million, as cash-strapped Britons increasingly run up unaffordable debts.
More sufferCitizens Advice says that there has been a 38% increase in problems with private bailiffs in the last five years. Last year alone, the charity helped with a total of 60,652 problems with bailiffs.
The biggest problems relate to a series of different kinds of threats made by the bailiffs. Some two in five threatened the use of force to get in, while 16% said they would call the police to gain entry. In reality they have to be invited in, or walk in through an open door. They cannot break into your property.
A quarter threatened to take items that are banned from removal by bailiffs, and 29% threatened to seize goods that belonged to someone else. You have rights here too. They can take luxury items such as your TV or games console, but cannot take essentials such as your work tools, fridge or cooker, and they can't take someone else's belongings - if you can prove that the item in question belongs to someone else.
Government actionCentral government has been moved to take action, bringing in new guidance for bailiffs in an effort to tackle heavy-handed tactics. The new rules set out that councils should no longer be collecting 'contractual kickbacks' from bailiffs. Shockingly this has been common. For example the north-west London borough of Harrow was expected to recover £60,000 by contractually making its bailiffs hand over 8% of their fees.
The rules also warn against employing those seeking to exploit residents through 'phantom visits' or excessive fees. So-called 'phantom visits' are essentially just putting a letter through the letterbox without trying to speak to anyone or negotiate repayment - for which bailiffs charge exorbitant fees.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said: "It is unacceptable for councils to employ burly bailiffs with heavy-handed tactics like kicking down doors, making phantom visits or charging excessive fees - it is unfair and damages a council's standing in the community. Today our new guidance is crystal clear: it is time to stop the dodgy practices where town halls collect contractual kickbacks from bailiffs that will do almost anything to make money."
But does it go far enough?Joanna Elson, Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust, said it doesn't: "We are pleased the Government sees fit to improve bailiff practices, but are concerned little will change as a result of today's announcement" she said.
"Advice charities like ours have worked long and hard with successive Governments to try and resolve the bad practice from bailiffs that our advisers hear on an ever-increasing basis. Unfortunately the changes announced do not tackle our most basic concerns about protecting vulnerable people from bad practice."
"There remains no independent oversight of the bailiff industry, no independent complaints body to make it easy for people to report bad practice, and no clear sanctions for bailiffs who break the rules. Additionally, there is no clarity that the new fee structure will not increase what bailiffs can charge people in debt."
Protect yourselfCitizens Advice is calling on local authorities to protect people from bailiffs. Guy says that given that a third of problems with bailiffs are over council tax debts, councils ought to help people early on who are struggling to pay their bills.
However, in the interim, the only way to stay safe from bailiffs is to act before it gets to this stage. Talk to those you owe money to before things get out of hand, and ask for repayment terms you can afford to stick to.
If it's too late, talk to a debt charity like StepChange or the Money Advice Trust. They will negotiate with lenders and people like the council for you, or help you understand alternative options open to you such as an IVA.
They don't have a magic wand: they won't make the debts go away, but they should avoid the risk of a heavy-handed bailiff appearing at your door.
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