A COALITION of seven debt charities has called on local authorities to ‘stamp out’ bad debt collection practices by bullying bailiffs acting as a law unto themselves.

AdviceUK, Christians Against Poverty, Citizens Advice, Money Advice Trust, StepChange Debt Charity, The Children’s Society and Z2K said they ‘all see the impact of continued problems in the bailiff industry on the people we help.

‘In this report, we present evidence on the experiences of our clients who have faced bailiff action over the last three years. We also explain the benefits that further reform would bring to people in debt, as well as to creditors, local and central government and the bailiff industry itself.’

Their new report Taking Control, revealed changes to the law covering bailiffs introduced in April 2014 are failing to protect people in financial difficulty from unfair treatment. It also found that local authorities, the largest user of bailiffs, passed 2.1 million debts to bailiffs in 2014/15. This represented a rise of 16% on two years previously.

The research found bailiffs regularly used intimidating behaviour, failed to accept affordable payment offers, and failed to take account of vulnerable clients. Nearly a quarter (24%) of 1,400 people who had been visited by a bailiff in the last six months had tried to arrange repayment by phone but found the bailiff insisted on visiting anyway.

According to the charities, the current fee structure incentivises bailiffs to visit the home.

Around a fifth (17%) of respondents also said they were not contacted by the bailiff before they visited. These are both examples of non-compliance with the 2014 regulations.

One in six clients surveyed had been visited by bailiffs in the previous year and half of them reported being treated unfairly. 16% said they felt forced to take out more credit to deal with bailiffs’ demands.

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. The report notes: ‘In 2016 The Children’s Society reported that parents and children were still finding it distressing when bailiffs came to the house to remove items or to force them to leave the house, and children were witnessing this first hand, causing them emotional distress.’

Giving an expample, it said: ‘Citizens Advice helped Michael, who stays with his father during the week. His father is 75 years old and disabled. Michael took his father into town and parked, using his father’s blue badge, in a loading/unloading area. He received a parking notice which was in his name and sent to his own home. He challenged the fine as he believed it was incorrect. Due to the appeal, the original fine had risen to £150.

‘While Michael was still contesting the fine, a bailiff visited his father’s home. The bailiff refused to let Michael’s father contact Michael and escorted him to an ATM where he took more than £400 to pay the fine and the bailiff’s fees.’

Citizens Advice chief executive, Gillian Guy said: ‘Harsh tactics by bailiffs can cause severe distress and push people even further into debt. Last year, Citizens Advice helped people with over 80,000 bailiff problems – with the majority related to enforcement action on council tax debts. 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 charities say that ‘reforms – including independent regulation of bailiffs, a single complaints mechanism, and the restructuring of bailiff fees to incentivise good practice – would represent a significant step towards the goal of building a country that works for everyone.’