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Bailiff statistics don’t add up – guest blog by Russell Hamblin-Boone, Chief Executive of the Civil Enforcement Association, with introduction from Philip King FCICM

15 November 2018

On Tuesday, Citizens Advice published a report ‘A law unto themselves: How bailiffs are breaking the rules.’ The report covers some good ground but my issue is with the headline that accompanied its release: “one person every minute experiences a bailiff breaking the rules.”

I’m neither a statistician nor a journalist but I’m familiar with the ‘smoke and mirrors’ approach that is commonly used. This latest example goes way beyond what is acceptable to me and uses a headline that is disingenuous at best and deliberately misleading at worst. Let’s look at the facts:

277 people were surveyed, of which 107 stated they had experienced rules being broken. This apparently extrapolates to 525,600 people per year experiencing a bailiff breaking the rules during a visit.

I don’t know about you but when I read that one person experiences something every single minute, I don’t think I’m reading about 107 people out of 277 responding to a survey.

The Financial Times included reference to the report in a story they ran about householders sinking into arrears. I’m pleased to see that they refrained from using the one per minute quote.

There may be a problem that needs highlighting but I believe Citizens Advice will have done neither itself, nor its reputation, any good in the way it has gone about launching the report which, by the way, can be seen here:

To introduce some balance, I asked Russell Hamblin-Boone, Chief Executive of the Civil Enforcement Association to share his views and here is his response:

Citizens Advice has recently published a report, A law unto themselves – how bailiffs are breaking the rules, which claims that a bailiff is flouting regulations every minute. It believes that this is an important contribution to the Ministry of Justice’s call for evidence.

The report is heavily based on the views of just 277 people who have had contact with bailiffs in the past two years. It is worrying that a respected debt advice organisation considers it acceptable to exaggerate figures when they cannot get robust data. Citizens Advice fails to make a distinction between laws that are broken and laws that people simply don’t like. For example, in the report it is assumed that a threat to force entry to a property or to remove goods required for work purposes is breaking the regulations. That is simply incorrect and depends on the circumstances. The incidents that are reported have no context and, in my experience of adjudicating on complaints, there is always more to learn about a case before making judgements. Often debt advisers do not have the detailed knowledge to assess the validity of a complaint.

The fact is that a hard core of people either cannot or will not pay money that they owe to the councils, sometimes over many years, and this is having a knock on effect to those who subsidise the shortfall. There are highly prescriptive regulations that set out what agents can and can’t do to collect overdue taxes and court fines. In some instances they have powers to change locks and remove hinges to force entry into someone’s home. That is the law. But anyone acting ‘illegally’ will be caught out by employers’ who monitor agents closely to ensure that local authority contracts are not put at risk by bad behaviour.

Undeniably, local authority debts are now being chased more rigorously because rightly people don’t want more cuts to their local services. That means councils are pursuing the 3% of hard to reach residents. Often it is an enforcement visit that allows us to differentiate between those who need welfare support and those who are evading payments. Of course, agents need to be assertive when chasing down people who refuse to pay their council tax or court fines.  But if there is any genuine evidence that agents are acting illegally then CIVEA will investigate and take the necessary action.

An enforcement visit doesn’t happen until every effort over months has been made to make contact through letters, emails, texts and phone calls. It’s usually at this point that people complain of harassment. Under the law, pursuing a debt like this is exempt from such charges. So when a survey of just 277 people is used to extrapolate a headline saying that enforcement agents nationally are breaking the law, I take issue with such poor quality research. There were around 12 million debts collected by enforcement agents in the last two years, so the report is statistically invalid.

This is not the first occasion I have had to take issue with the quality of Citizens Advice’s research. In the summer a highly critical press statement claimed that issues with bailiffs has increased by 24% since 2014. In fact, the number of calls to bureaux rose because since 2014 the Notice of Enforcement has actively encouraged people to get debt advice.  In the same report Citizens Advice estimated that bailiffs collect £19 billion of arrears from bills such as council tax and utilities. This is another exaggeration aimed at chasing headlines. Only around 18% of this type of debt qualifies for collection by Certificated Enforcement Agents and not all of that will be allocated.

Enforcement agents have a difficult job to do in challenging circumstances. Sometimes they have to take a firm approach to stop people from flouting the law. It’s not very pleasant to have someone on your doorstep giving you a final demand, but it’s not very fair that local services are shutting down because people think they don’t need to pay for their council tax or their court fines.

We have an opportunity to make some good improvements to priority debt collection. The MOJ is conducting a fact-based policy consultation exercise. If there is any genuine evidence that agents are acting illegally then we will investigate and take the necessary action. But, if we are to continue working together to drive up industry standards, we must avoid an emotionally-charged debate based on hearsay and instead focus on robust facts and strong evidence.

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