StepChange Comments on the return of bailiff visits

The 5-month suspension of bailiff activity ends today. StepChange Debt Charity welcomes last minute Government guidance published on Friday but has serious concerns that this resumption of activity is premature.

The government’s own rationale for suspending activity – because “financial pressures [from firms and creditors]” would create the risk of poor practice and unnecessary visits “which could endanger the health of both enforcement agents and debtors” – has not changed.

With the risks of the pandemic still very much present, this alone should have been enough to extend the suspension – as happened on Friday in relation to tenancy evictions – quite apart from the case for seeking to mitigate the stress and pressure that bailiff activity imposes on those whose circumstances leave them unable to pay in these unprecedented times.

We’re pleased that the Government responded to advice sector concerns about inadequate industry safeguards by publishing its own guidance for bailiffs on Friday. This brings some welcome clarity and substance on how bailiffs should conduct visits safely, especially in relation to vulnerable households particularly at risk of the virus. However, with bailiffs unable to enter people’s homes to take control of goods we still question the purpose of these visits, which will add £235 to people’s bills.

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.

Even with improved guidance, the Government has very little power to ensure bailiffs follow the rules when they return to work today. The slow response from the Government, the inadequate initial attempt at guidance by CIVEA (the bailiff trade association), and the lack of effective enforcement of the rules demonstrates the need for stronger independent oversight of the sector, as we have been urging the Ministry of Justice for a considerable time, well before the pandemic.

StepChange Director of External Affairs Richard Lane says: “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.”