I recently met with Citizens Advice Bromley (CAB) in Anerley town hall for their Big Energy Saving Week – a national campaign to help people cut their energy bills and get all the financial support they are entitled to. Energy bills can be a significant challenge for many especially during the winter months, and it was fantastic to see the CAB team in action and hear about their work helping those in difficulty save money.
Whilst there the team also briefed me on one of their other big campaigns on bailiff reform. Last year alone, Citizens Advice helped 41,000 people with bailiff issues. The team shared with me the case of one Bromley resident who has serious mental health difficulties and whilst experiencing changes to their welfare payments, this person fell behind on their council tax.
Approximately £300 was passed to the bailiffs who then added enforcement fees. When the bailiffs visited they asked the individual to pay in full - and despite clear evidence of the individual’s vulnerability - they did not refer them for further support or give them additional time to pay. In doing so, they broke the standards set out in the ‘Taking Control of Goods: National Standards’.
Sadly, this is not an isolated case, research has shown that in the last two years bailiffs have broken the rules in 39% of cases. It is clear we need much stronger legislation, especially to protect vulnerable people from bailiff malpractice and it is also evident that reform of the complaints procedure is needed since remedial action rarely leads to a bailiff being penalised for breaking the rules.
As chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party Backbench Justice Group, I held a meeting last week in Parliament specifically on this issue. We had speeches from numerous MPs and campaign groups and we all agreed that reform is needed. Specifically, we concurred that an independent bailiff regulator needs to be introduced to oversee the activities of bailiffs and bailiff firms. In addition, we also need to create a free, independent complaints process to help eliminate problems in the industry.
Following on from this I submitted evidence to the Ministry of Justice’s ‘Review of the enforcement agent reforms’. In this, I highlighted local case examples of bad practise I am aware of through my own constituency casework and conversations with Citizens Advice and the backbench justice group. This is something I will continue to campaign on in Parliament and given the scale of the problem, is something that the Government needs to act on urgently.