New guidelines for councils set out that they should no longer be collecting ‘contractual kickbacks’ from bailiffs or employing those seeking to exploit residents through ‘phantom visits’ or excessive fees. Figures suggest the five biggest bailiff companies earn a combined revenue in excess of £60 million.
The steps taken today fulfil a coalition government pledge to provide more protection for the public against aggressive bailiffs and unreasonable charges.
The Citizens Advice recently found there had been a 38% increase in complaints about private bailiffs over the last five years. Almost nine in ten bailiff problems the charity deals with relate to private bailiffs, who collect debts such as council tax and parking penalties.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said:
It is unacceptable for councils to employ burly bailiffs with heavy-handed tactics like kicking down doors, making phantom visits or charging excessive fees – it is unfair and damages a council’s standing in the community.
Today our new guidance is crystal clear: it is time to stop the dodgy practices where town halls collect contractual kickbacks from bailiffs that will do almost anything to make money.
Citizens Advice Chief Executive Gillian Guy said:
A third of the bailiff problems we help with each year are for council tax debt. We see cases where bailiffs overstate their powers, act aggressively and bump up debts by levying excessive fees and charges. Local authorities must protect people from bailiffs who flout the law by helping people early on who are struggling to pay their council tax. We urge councils to sign up to our protocol for dealing with council tax debt.
Ending ‘phantom visits’
The guidance will put a stop to the worrying practice where some bailiffs undertake ‘phantom visits’ – charging inflated fees for putting a letter through a door - while not actually making any realistic attempt to speak to people or negotiate payment plans. Any such practices should be grounds for termination of a contract with fraudulent activity reported to the police as a criminal offence.
Ceasing council kickbacks
Further protections make it clear that it is inappropriate for councils to receive extra payment or profit-sharing from the use of bailiffs and the charging of fees. Contracts should not involve rewards or penalties which incentivise the use of bailiffs where it would not otherwise be justified.
- bailiffs providing the debtor with a contact number should they wish to speak to the billing authority;
- local councils remaining responsible for the action of bailiffs they have contracted;
- in-house bailiffs having to explicitly state that they are part of the local authority;
- councils publishing their standard scale of fees on their website, to allow public scrutiny and highlight unreasonable practices; and
- actively encouraging councils to sign up to that good practice protocol
This guidance replaces the previous Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) Guidance, ODPM Council Tax Collection Good Practice, published in 2005.
View the full document, Guidance to Local Authorities on good practice in the collection of council tax arrears.
50 ways to save
Citizens Advice online guide to bailiffs.