Debt collection letters debated in parliament after BAFTA win

The story of how Jerome Rogers took his own life after threats from bailiffs is one of the drivers for reform of threatening demands

The tragic story of Jerome Rogers won a BAFTA earlier this month and now it is centre stage in a parliamentary debate on threatening debt collection letters.

Jerome took his own life at the age of just 20 in 2016 after being threatened with bailiffs and a deluge of letters chasing spiralling parking fines. His heart-breaking story was turned into drama Killed By My Debt by the BBC, which won a BAFTA for Single Drama.

In his acceptance speech, his brother Nat called for change insisting that the practice was “not right”.

That saw Jerome’s story referenced by Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb in Tuesday’s debate on threatening debt collection letters as part of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute’s (MMHPI) Stop the Debt Threat campaign.

The charity has attracted 6,000 signatures on their petition to change the Consumer Credit Act 1974 so that harassing letters sent to recover debts do not have a detrimental mental health impact on the recipient leading to tragic outcomes like in Jerome’s case.

Lamb, who is leading the calls for reform on behalf of MMHPI in parliament, told Economic Secretary to the Treasury John Glen that the current laws were “outdated and frankly ridiculous” in Tuesday’s debate.

Debt collection letters often include complex text which is capitalised and put in bold,” he said. “The language can be intimidating to someone experiencing mental ill health and the letters often start with threats of court action. These letters do contain advice and the purpose is well-meaning in terms of legislative wording that they are required to be use and it’s out of date. It was written before free debt advice was widely available.”

Currently the act diverts people steeped in problem debt to seek out legal assistance, Trading Standards or the Citizens Advice Bureau.

“That people in problem debt should be told in official advice to seek out a solicitor is outdated and frankly ridiculous,” said Lamb.

“The reason that the advice is so out of date is, outrageously, that the legal advice is dictated by legislation which hasn’t been updated in decades.”

In response, Glen insisted that it is “top priority” to take into account the mental health impact of threatening letters on vulnerable people.

He has pointed to the introduction of the Breathing Space scheme which is currently being developed as a solution – the idea is aiming to offer a 60-day respite period where debt collectors cannot contact people who owe them cash, allowing them to receive advice and assistance.

Glen also provided an update on the Ministry of Justice’s consultation on a regulatory body for bailiffs and debt collectors, revealing that the government will respond in the summer following the end of a consultation period in February.

“I do appreciate the concerns raised in respect of the contents of the letters and he is right to draw attention to the language used and the intimidating nature of it,” said Glen, responding to Lamb. “I share his concerns of the impact they can have on vulnerable people.

“As any financial services lawyer will attest to the Consumer Credit Act is a technical and complex beast. We want to ensure we take a holistic view of the act in its entirety to ensure no other adverse effects created and no unexpected outcomes rise. But I recognise that changing the wording on a letter would not appear to be a significant issue on the face of it.”

Image: BBC