Bailiff action ‘must be suspended’ during Covid-19 outbreak

The UK’s three largest debt charities have called on the Government to instruct local authorities in England and Wales to suspend bailiff action for the duration of the Covid-19 outbreak. The move comes as Citizens Advice, Money Advice Trust and StepChange Debt Charity report that debt advisers have already begun to receive calls about bailiffs visiting their homes from people who are self-isolating.

In a joint letter sent to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick, the chief executives of the three charities call for bailiff action to be temporarily suspended on both public health and financial support grounds.

In light of the Prime Minister’s announcement of more stringent measures including asking all citizens to stay at home in almost all circumstances, the charities say urgent clarity is needed for local authorities on the need to prevent bailiffs – now known legally as enforcement agents – from visiting the properties of people who are already struggling with the financial impact of the outbreak.

The charities are calling on the Government to take the following urgent steps:

  • Instruct all local authorities in England and Wales to immediately suspend all use of enforcement agents to collect debts. This should include pausing existing action and stopping any new action during the Covid-19 outbreak.
  • Support local authorities to offer 3-month council tax breaks to those affected financially by Covid-19, funded by central government.
  • Suspend current rules that mean people become liable for the whole of their annual Council Tax bill after one missed payment, to ensure that people who do fall behind during the Covid-19 outbreak do not fall further into debt.

Some local authorities, including Dudley Council and Peterborough Council, have taken action locally to suspend bailiff action – but in the absence of a clear instruction from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the charities fear that other local authorities will continue to pass debts to bailiffs despite the outbreak.

Money Advice Trust research has shown that local authorities instructed 2.6 million debts to bailiffs in the 2018/19 year.

Dame Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Aggressive collection of council tax at a time when people are concerned about the health and financial consequences of Covid-19 is plain wrong. The government must urgently stop bailiffs collecting these arrears for the duration of the outbreak and put in place measures to prevent council tax bills forcing people into spiralling debt.”

Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline, said: “All local authorities should be suspending bailiff action during this crisis – and the most guaranteed way of ensuring this is for the Government to include this measure as part of its Covid-19 response. With 2.6 million debts being passed to bailiffs by local authorities every year, this issue is pressing and urgent – on the grounds of both public health and supporting the growing number of households whose finances have been impacted by Covid-19.”

Phil Andrew, chief executive of StepChange Debt Charity, said: “Immediate suspension of bailiff action is the only practical and manageable way to proceed at this time of crisis. Right now the Covid-19 response requires a decisive and universal decision from local authorities to pause bailiff action. This is the only way to ensure people dealing with financial difficulty, illness or both are protected from debt enforcement during this period that will only add to their difficulties and worries