Analysing The Political Economy

Local Councils Call Bailiffs Over Debts Of Just £3

By Martin Williams and Andrew Kersley: The cost of living crisis has meant record profits for bailiff firms, with bosses taking pay rises up to 367%. Local councils have told bailiffs to target families who are just £3 in debt, openDemocracy has revealed. In one case, a local authority in London called in bailiffs after a family accidentally received £16.36 too much in housing benefit and failed to repay it.

With warnings about rising debts amid the cost of living crisis and cash-strapped councils doing all they can to balance their books, bailiffs are cashing in. The surge in demand for their services has seen the income of the country’s biggest enforcement agencies rise by up to 3,800% in a single year.

Between January 2020 and June 2023, councils passed on at least £4.5bn of debt to enforcement companies, according to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The true figure is likely to be far higher, as dozens of councils refused to provide the figures.

It follows reports that referrals to bailiffs to recover unpaid council debts rose by almost 20% between 2022 and 2023. They include parking fines, non-payment of business rates and housing arrears.

Lambeth Council alone has issued bailiff warrants more than 237,000 times in three-and-a-half years, equivalent to three-quarters of the borough’s population.

Some cases involve large amounts of money, but bailiffs have also been called in to recover extremely small debts. Figures obtained by openDemocracy reveal at least 128 councils referred debts of less than £100 to bailiffs, including 19 who issued warrants for less than £10.

In some of these cases, bailiffs may not have physically attended the person’s home, but may have sent threatening letters or text messages.

Camden Council issued a bailiff warrant to recover just £3 of debt relating to a parking charge. A spokesperson said, “The small amount owed means that an enforcement agent was not sent, adding: “We have since introduced measures to prevent warrants being automatically issued to low-value debts such as these.”

But they would not say whether bailiffs sent warning messages to the household in question.

In another case, bailiffs in Somerset were instructed over debts of just £1.20. The council claims this was part of a larger package of debts owed by the same household.

Forced entry

Bailiffs typically only get paid when they recover debt, either through direct payments or by seizing personal possessions. Strict laws govern how they are supposed to operate, but many have faced accusations of foul play.

For Andy Thompson*, the presence of bailiffs on his doorstep came as a total surprise. Speaking to openDemocracy, he said he was leaving his flat in north London in 2022 when he came face-to-face with the man.

“He said we hadn’t paid our council tax. He said: ‘You’ve got to pay it, or we’ll bring round a van and take your stuff’.”

However, the bailiff was asking for someone who no longer lived at Thompson’s address, because the council had failed to update their records.

“This wasn’t malicious nonpayment of council tax, it just got overlooked,” Thompson explained. “But a minute or two into our conversation, the bailiff had stepped across the threshold, so I couldn’t shut the door on him.

“I only learned after the fact that that was an illegal tactic for a debt collector.”

The confrontation escalated as the bailiff refused to let Thompson properly examine or photograph a court order he had authorising him to attend the property. “I couldn’t tell if this guy was fake or real, and I felt a level of threat from that,” he said. “I didn’t have any serious understanding of who was in my doorway threatening to take my shit.”

Thompson alleges the bailiff phoned colleagues who pretended to be in a van just “ten minutes away” who would start confiscating household items when they arrived. The van never materialised (there are steps bailiffs have to take before they can legally confiscate any possessions).

Not knowing what else to do, Thompson phoned 999 in an effort to have the police intervene. But they refused to respond, claiming the bailiff had a right to be there – despite not reviewing any evidence at the scene.

Over an hour later, one of his flatmates paid the debts, just to make the bailiff leave. “I was really not in the right state of mind after that,” Thomson said. “It really affected my mental health.”

Research by Citizens Advice last year found that a third of people who were visited by bailiffs experienced behaviour that broke official rules. This includes forced entry and not taking disabilities into account.

Almost two-thirds of people also said they had experienced harassment or intimidation when bailiffs had visited, sometimes threatening to break property or misrepresenting their legal powers. And almost three-quarters said the experience had impacted their mental health.

“Bailiffs are a law unto themselves,” chief executive of Citizens Advice, Clare Moriarty, said at the time. “Rogue behaviour is making things far worse for people in really difficult situations – sometimes pushing them further into debt.”

One person whose mental health was impacted by a bailiff visit told openDemocracy he ended up in hospital because of it.

Dan Murphy* was visited by an enforcement agent last year, who refused to answer his questions about who they were. “I got nothing,” he said. “No ID from him, no mention of what the debt was. He just said he was a debt collector.”

It turned out to be another case of mistaken identity, but the long dispute on his doorstep had taken its toll on Dan. “My heart was racing, and I felt like I couldn’t calm down from it,” he said. “Later that night, my chest was feeling tight. And the next day, I woke up with it, and it was still there.”

The pain continued for days, and when he eventually called the NHS 111 service, he was told to go to the hospital to check if his heart was okay. After a series of tests and referrals to other doctors, he says the hospital concluded that the pain was a result of stress – triggered by his bailiff encounter.

“It’s by design, right?” Dan said. “This guy wanted to stress you out to get what he needs to and then run off again.

“Your illusion of safety and security is shattered. You’re in your own home, and you’re being threatened. It’s a powerless feeling; I didn’t feel secure in my house for weeks. My door would go, and I’d get a jump for a second at the thought that it was that guy again.”

Newlyn PLC

As debts mount up, the stress of being pursued by bailiffs can become unbearable. Charities such as StepChange offer advice and debt solutions, but with more than 12.8m British households in debt, some struggle to find the financial and mental health support they need.

Jerome Rogers was just 20 when he took his own life shortly after bailiffs clamped his motorbike in 2016. The vehicle was essential for his work as a courier, but Camden Council in London asked bailiffs to pursue him over two unpaid parking fines.

The original fines were just £65 each, but non-payment penalties and bailiff fees increased the total debt to more than £1,000.

Reports said Rogers received two visits from a bailiff contracted by Newlyn PLC, one of the UK’s biggest debt collection firms. At the inquest into his death, which was ruled a suicide, the coroner said the presence of bailiffs must have been “intimidating” for Rogers.

She also expressed concern at some of Newlyn PLC’s practices – including wrongly valuing Roger’s motorbike – but said the bailiff who made the visits had personally been reasonable.

Records obtained by openDemocracy show that Camden Council and at least 28 other local authorities across the UK continued to use Newlyn PLC.

A Camden Council spokesperson told openDemocracy it was “satisfied that there have been improvements made by Newlyn and all of the enforcement agencies we use for this service,” adding that it has “invested in a programme of debt support”.

In August last year, the Observer reported that the bailiff firm had seen its “best ever results” in 2022 after its turnover increased by 43.8% to £25.8m.

The company declined to answer questions from openDemocracy.

Bailiff bosses

During the pandemic, measures were introduced to limit bailiff deployments in a bid to reduce Covid transmission. But the financial crisis faced by many councils led to them being swiftly reinstated, despite warnings it could lead to a “surge in bailiff action”.

For many bailiff bosses, this has resulted in bumper paydays. They include bosses at CDER Group Ltd, whose highest-paid director took home nearly £2.4m in 2022, a 367% increase from the previous year. The company is used by dozens of councils, as well as by Transport for London, to collect debts related to the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).

A spokesperson for CDER Group told openDemocracy that the pause in bailiff action during the pandemic “distorts any revenue comparisons” and said they would not comment on its director’s 367% pay rise.

Bristow & Sutor, a bailiff firm widely used by councils across the UK, has seen its turnover increase by 150% over the last three years, rising to almost £30m. The company is owned via a tax haven and has paid out almost £6.3m in shareholder dividends during the period.

Bristow & Sutor did not respond to a request for comment.

As the cost of living crisis has worsened, Citizens Advice and StepChange have both called for a fully independent regulator on a statutory footing, to raise standards among bailiff companies.

“This is ever more important as the cost of living crisis pushes households across the country into hardship and likely into arrears,” said Peter Tutton, head of policy, research and public affairs at StepChange.

“Enforcement action, or the use of bailiffs, should be used as a last resort by local authorities after engaging with and supporting residents to see whether they’re experiencing financial difficulty. In any case that bailiffs are used, there must be a focus on protecting vulnerable individuals and not overstepping the mark.”

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