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Bailiffs return ‘puts people at risk’, say charities

People who owed money before lockdown could be visited by bailiffs from today. Campaigners are urging the Government to protect those struggling for cash, not make it easier to pressure them

The five-month suspension of bailiff activity in England and Wales ends today, meaning many could start being chased for unpaid bills.

But campaigners say it’s too soon, risking the mental and physical wellbeing of people struggling to make ends meet during the Covid-19 crisis.

When the Government suspended bailiff operations in April, they said financial pressure from firms and creditors would increase the risk of unnecessary visits while the virus circulates, endangering the health of both bailiffs and debtors.

This, debt charities say, has not changed – and they want to see an extension to the suspension similar to that brought in for the eviction ban last week.

“Given that the economic consequences of the crisis have hit struggling households hardest, the Government should be helping people who have fallen behind, not making it harder for them to repay their debts,” StepChange said.

The Money and Mental Health Policy Institude previously reported that bailiff visits were found to cause significant distress to people struggling with their mental health.

Last week the Ministry of Justice released updated conduct guidance for bailiffs chasing unpaid council tax and parking tickets, including an instruction not to raise their voices to prevent transmission of Covid-19.

The guidance outlines ways in which they should socially distance when they go door-knocking, and should get in touch before visiting to check if anyone in the home is self-isolating or has Covid-19 symptoms.

Enforcement agents will now be paying visits to people with outstanding debts before the pandemic, but Citizens Advice said up to six million people in the UK fell behind on their bills during lockdown – with those they have helped with debt likely to need two-and-a-half years to pay it back on average.

Russell Hamblin-Boone, chief executive of bailiff trade body the Civil Enforcement Association, told the BBC that resuming bailiffs activity was crucial to propping up local authorities financially.

“Councils face a deepening financial crisis because of increased costs and lost revenue during lockdown so it is important that civil enforcement work can resume to recover much needed funding for frontline services,” he said.

“Enforcement action is always a last resort by councils when other collection measures have failed and, even then, in half of all cases, an affordable payment plan is set up through emails or phone calls.”

Bailiffs have not to enter people’s homes to take good unless in exceptional circumstances, leaving charities questioning the purpose of resuming the visits which cost £235 to people’s debt bills.

StepChange director of external affairs Richard Lane said: “This rushed and premature return to bailiff activity puts people at risk and will make debts harder to repay.

“We welcome the Government’s new guidance on how these visits should be conducted, but we still have concerns about how it will ensure this guidance is followed. We would also question, while still in the midst of the crisis, whether bailiff visits are a useful way to deal with arrears from vulnerable households.

“The lack of oversight only highlights the urgent and longstanding need for an independent regulator. We are pleased that the government was mindful of our concerns, but fundamental reform remains essential.”

Only around half of local authorities have given bailiff activity the green light so far. Jane Tully, from the Money Advice Trust, warned of a surge in bailiff action in the coming months as the pandemic-driven recession takes hold and people fall further behind on bills.

Dame Gillian Guy of Citizens Advice said: “Protections put in place by the government, businesses and regulators have staved off the worst consequences of lockdown debt – so far.

“But with these measures beginning to end, millions will now face the repercussions.

“Financial support for those who’ve fallen into debt must be prioritised to free them from the damaging consequences of long-term debt, and help strengthen the economic recovery.”