CIVEA reports that the success of its response to the COVID-19 crisis across England and Wales, has been supported by the launch of its strengthened Code of Practice one year ago.
All CIVEA members are required to comply with the code of practice in the same way that they have acted collectively to adhere to a post-lockdown support plan. Introduced in September 2019, the code of practice exceeds the statutory requirements and the National Standards to ensure individuals and firms undertake civil enforcement to the highest standards, whilst maintaining the integrity of taxation and judicial processes.
Unexpected positive implications of the renewed code included the preparedness of members to handle several urgent policy changes, such as social distancing guidelines for visits to be able to resume after lockdown. High-quality training, for example, was already a fundamental element of the code. So, it was possible to design and smoothly implement a bespoke training COVID-19 health and safety programme, which was mandatory for all enforcement agents (EAs). The code also promotes better communication with customers, which was applied by members to re-engage with people after a five-month hiatus on enforcement activity during the summer.
The code of practice states that members must ensure all staff can identify and provide appropriate support to vulnerable people. This has become especially important since the coronavirus pandemic began when more people than usual may be facing potentially vulnerable circumstances. It is reassuring for local authorities who are supporting the public through these challenging times, that CIVEA members already had welfare support plans in place. All CIVEA members are instructed to signpost debtors to third party debt advice sector throughout the entire collection lifecycle.
The code also sets out a detailed complaints procedure that all CIVEA members must adhere to. Local authorities require an accessible and transparent complaints process for anyone who wishes to dispute a debt or register a complaint against the conduct of public servants. This obligation extends to EAs and other third-party service providers that contract with local authorities. CIVEA has voluntarily mandated the use of body-worn cameras within the code of practice and, along with the debt advice sector, is calling for the draft Public Service Ombudsman Bill to be given parliamentary time.
A robust framework ensures that firms comply with the code. This includes an independent audit of company policies, call monitoring and observation of agents in the field. The process is overseen by an independent panel of experts known as the Compliance, Adjudication and Review of Enforcement Panel (CARE). This panel currently consists of four independent experts; Dr Wendy Kennett (Lecturer, Law School, Cardiff University); Caroline Wells (Vulnerable customer champion/Complaints adjudication expert); Dave Pickering (Former CEO of Lending Standards Board and compliance and risk specialist for Virgin Money) and Sheila Harding (Industry expert and founder of Bailiff Advice Online).
It is important to remember that the vast majority of visits since enforcement activity resumed post-lockdown, have been to enforce fines, traffic offences and other penalties that have been outstanding since before lockdown measures led to a suspension of activity. The majority of people have continued to meet their repayment plans throughout the coronavirus pandemic, indicating that payments are both fair and affordable. CIVEA members will only visit debtors who have not engaged or communicated with their local authority despite being given numerous opportunities to do so. Visits are only authorised when there is a genuine need and previous attempts to resolve debts by other forms of communication have failed.
Russell Hamblin-Boone, CIVEA Chief Executive Officer, says “When we reviewed the CIVEA code of practice last year, we could not have predicted the coronavirus pandemic, but the enhanced industry measures have proved robust against this significant test. The resumption of enforcement visits to collect overdue, pre-coronavirus debt to local authorities has been handled successfully and safely, but that may not have been as simple had our members not already implemented the strengthened code in word and spirit.
“Recent reports have highlighted the social dilemma that we face as an outcome of the coronavirus. The economic impact of the pandemic has created huge shortfalls in local government budgets and, at the same time exacerbating the financial vulnerability of some people. By committing to the high standards set out in our code of practice, CIVEA continues to ensure that members collect on behalf of local authorities efficiently, effectively and safely.”