‘Pay up, or it trebles’: bailiffs accused of strong-arm tactics in UK

Dr Naomi Spiers was sleeping off a night shift when there was a loud bang on the door. She curled up under the covers but the knocking wouldn’t stop.

When she answered, her visitor – wearing a face mask and bulletproof vest – demanded £425. He held out a card machine for her to pay. “I was like, ‘What the hell?’ He said, ‘Is that your car? I’ve put a clamp on it.’”

Spiers’s original offence was late payment of a £2.50 toll charge. Working night shifts in A&E, she says she had missed the payment deadline of midnight the following day, and the debt had been passed to a private enforcement firm.

She asked if she could arrange a payment plan, but claims the bailiff insisted she pay on the spot. “He said, ‘You’ve only a few minutes until the tow truck comes, and then it’s going to be another £800,’” said Spiers. The company disputes her account.

She needed her car to get to work that night, so she paid the £425. “I felt so put upon, and the only way I could make him go away was to pay. It felt like bullyboy tactics,” she said. “When he left, I was unbelievably angry and shaken. It was like, ‘Pay pay pay pay pay, otherwise it’s going to treble’.”

The 36-year-old, from south-east London, is one of a growing number of Britons being visited by bailiffs, widely used by public sector bodies to recoup cash – sometimes for the most minor of violations. There are limits to the fees bailiffs can charge, but in extreme cases, the amount can be hundreds of pounds more than the original sum owed. In Spiers’s case, the bailiff claimed she had been sent several letters, including the original penalty charge notice and subsequent enforcement reminders. But Spiers says she received only one letter and that it was backdated. She tried to pay the £180 fine, but when she phoned the premium-rate helpline in her lunch break, she couldn’t get through.

By the time she was confronted by a bailiff at her door, the fee was 170 times the original toll charge. “It’s daylight robbery,” she said.

Before the pandemic, referrals to bailiffs had been rising rapidly, with about 3m civil enforcement cases in 2019, according to the Centre for Social Justice – an increase of more than 600,000 in five years.

In the first lockdown, the government suspended bailiff visits but they resumed later that year, with members of the Civil Enforcement Association conducting more than 1.5m visits between September 2020 and April 2021.

Charities have warned that the number of cases involving bailiffs is set to surge as rising costs of living push households into debt. New figures suggest they are already beginning to climb, with Citizens Advice receiving 2,704 requests for help with bailiffs last month compared with 1,884 in December.

Most cases Citizens Advice hears about involve council tax arrears, but bailiffs – who are also widely used by energy and utility companies – are increasingly being engaged over minor violations such as parking fines, according to the Money Advice Trust.

For those on the receiving end, it can be traumatising and humiliating. In one case recorded by the debt advice charity StepChange earlier this year, a recently widowed woman was contacted by bailiffs “two to three times a day for payment of council tax arrears”. “Client suffers from serious mental health issues and it’s causing her more stress,” the helpline advisers wrote in their notes.

In another case, a woman whose partner was having chemotherapy was visited in the dark by bailiffs “banging loudly on the door and shouting ‘you don’t pay your council tax’”.

Faith Gillin, 53, from Northampton, said she was left “incredibly anxious” after a visit from bailiffs in October. For the mother of one, the knock had come on a dark morning at 6am. “I came down in my dressing gown and there was this big chap standing there. He said, ‘Do you remember driving in a bus lane in April?’”

She later realised she had forgotten to update her address with the DVLA as required, and a fine sent to her old address had gone unpaid. But the council had not contacted her at her new address, despite having the details on record, she says – instead passing the debt to an enforcement firm.

While Gillin “didn’t have a problem” with the £440 fine, she feels that “to have somebody banging on your door at 6am because you’ve gone into a bus lane is ridiculous”. “I was shaken by it for a couple of weeks. It distressed me to the point that when my postman knocked on the door I didn’t want to answer it,” she said.

She accused councils of failing in their duty of care by passing smaller debts to bailiffs, which she said could have a severe impact on people’s mental health. “It’s using a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” she said.

The Civil Enforcement Association said the industry was “committed to raising standards” and that there was “no evidence of systemic problems with the use of enforcement agents”. It added that complaints were investigated thoroughly and that bailiffs helped recover hundreds of millions of pounds for the taxpayer.

There have been improvements in recent years. In 2014, the government brought in guidance that says bailiffs must not act in a threatening or deliberately embarrassing manner, should not press debtors to make unreasonable offers of payment and should withdraw from cases where the person is deemed vulnerable.

Bailiffs warning letter
Later this year, a new independent body to oversee bailiffs is due to be launched. Photograph: Alex Segre/Alamy

And later this year, a new independent body to oversee bailiffs is due to be launched after years of campaigning. The exact remit of the Enforcement Conduct Board is yet to be fixed, but it is expected to investigate complaints and fine firms for poor practice, and has been welcomed by the industry as a “landmark reform”.

Councils and government agencies, meanwhile, say their use of bailiffs is proportionate. Highways England said it only used bailiffs when people had not responded to a penalty charge notice. It said it was not required to visit customers in person before referring cases, and that bailiffs underwent comprehensive checks and training. The Local Government Association said bailiffs should only ever be a “last resort”.

But charities and campaigners want further reform – including statutory regulation to hold bailiffs to account – and say that a more compassionate approach is needed.

Concerns have been raised about the employment model used by most bailiff firms – where agents are self-employed workers who earn commission based on their caseload, rather than employees with a salary. One advert for a major bailiff firm – which describes those with a military, police or HMP prison background as desirable candidates – offered “uncapped commission” with “realistic earnings between £35k and £65k”.

Ed McDonagh, policy officer at StepChange, said the model drove “a lot of the bad practice”. “Often the aggressive practices of the bailiffs will force people just to pay them off: they’ll lean on high-cost credit, friends and family or loan sharks just to get these people off their backs, pushing them into this spiral of debt,” he added.

Jane Tully, from the Money Advice Trust, said that while there had been a “modest improvement” in the sector, the charity was still hearing about “poor practice”, including bailiffs “refusing affordable offers of payments, misrepresenting their powers or using threatening language and not taking account of people’s circumstances, even in cases where they are particularly vulnerable”. “We need to see more action to stop people from falling behind in the first place, and to ensure those who do are treated fairly,” she said.

Some councils are taking a different approach. Since 2017, Hammersmith and Fulham has adopted a process it terms “ethical debt collection”. Rather than passing debts to third-party enforcers, it handles them itself.

The decision was sparked by concerns about the sector and the need to protect residents. Two years earlier, Jerome Rogers, a courier who transported blood between hospitals in Croydon, had taken his own life after facing demands for £1,019 from bailiffs who clamped his vehicle. The 20-year-old had been issued with two £65 traffic fines, but added charges saw the fee soar by more than £800.

In extreme cases where there is persistent non-payment, the council can still take the person to court and obtain a liability order for the debt. But before it reaches that stage, it opts for early intervention, “working constructively with families who are struggling to pay”, contacting them via different means and “working closely with the advice sector”.

In the first year after the scheme’s launch, the council collected 96.76% of all the council tax it was owed – an improvement on previous years.

“We don’t want to be sending bailiffs to people’s doors,” said Councillor Maxwell Schmid, cabinet member for finance, who pioneered the scheme.

“But in addition to the moral side of this, what you’re actually doing is risking driving families into more desperate situations and homelessness. Who then picks up the housing bill?

“If people are pushed further into debt, the whole public sector will end up picking up the pieces.”