Article: Bailiff legislation – what a waste of time

I’ve had my experiences with bailiffs in the past and know how difficult it can be.  Upon hearing of new legislative changes though, I got frustrated at what I see as being “mask” conversations.  Bailiffs, gay marriage and our relationship with the EU are not the priority right now.  So I wrote this piece for the Huffington Post.  Enjoy:

4 January 2010 is a day I won’t forget any time soon. On the first working day of the year, I stepped out of my house at 6am and walked straight into an unmarked white van. The van was on my drive and the front of it no more than 3 steps from my door. The man sitting in the car seemed tiny, until his 6ft 5in, 300 million stone frame squeezed out and, almost Ray Winstone-like, snarled “Mr Patel. I’m here to collect £1,850 on behalf of (insert name of big bad bank here)”.

Flattered though I was at the generalisation that someone of my frame could possibly be a Mr Patel, it was a case of mistaken identity. “He doesn’t live here anymore”, I explained. “I bought the house from him 7 years ago”. The bailiff was convinced that I looked like a Mr Patel, so I should stop trying to pull the wool over his eyes, arrange immediate payment or he’ll be noting down the details of my car he intended to take as payment of this debt. Early morning commuters who had to walk around this van and my distressed mother in the house made for a somewhat difficult hour.

So it is welcome news that aggressive bailiff practices will be subject to legislative changes from next year. Among the changes, bailiffs will be prevented from using any physical contact, cannot enter homes where only children are present or set their own fees. Indeed, it is not their arms that have a crippling impact on debtors, it is their “visit charges”. The enforcement industry has called these changes a “small step forward”.

However, the changes being suggested, on the whole, aren’t really new at all. Enforcement law is notoriously complex, with powers differing on the debt in question and the types of creditors using enforcement officers. There is already some legislation in place that details what bailiffs are able to do. The proposed changes are still very light on what the industry itself is after – stronger regulation and a consistent complaints procedure. Although, limiting powers on fee charges is a very important and necessary step.

But critically, in the week Britain faced up to the prospect of a triple-dip recession, this announcement feels like a further admission that current economic policies are failing. Essentially reminding people of their rights when dealing with bailiffs, it is implicitly suggested that more people are expected to fall on hard times.

According to the Bank of England, over £3.4bn of lending to individuals was written off in the second quarter of 2010 – the highest since 2007 to date. With defaults lasting six years on credit files, consumer credit markets – and subsequently consumer consumption – is on a long and slow journey to recovery.

The Council of Mortgage Lenders reported an 18% fall in loans for house purchases and remortgages from August to September 2012 and a further 14% fall in first-time lending over the same period. Persistently difficult borrowing conditions coupled with increasing food, energy and travel prices are further putting the pinch on consumer wallets.

This depresses markets. Consumers need better education about the impact of the last few years on their credit files, managing their bills more effectively and making their money go further. Funding cuts to Citizens Advice Bureaux across the country don’t help. Increased financial prudence may be an unintended consequence for the short and medium-term economy, but with interest rates remaining low, consumers may be more willing to spend.

Personal finance experts, like Martin Lewis, the founder of moneysavingexpert.com whose financial education in schools petition gathered over 100,000 signatures and has led to its place in school curriculums from 2014, should join forces with banks and credit rating agencies to make a similar effort by entering communities and educating consumers.

It is in the consumer’s interest to know their rights when faced with bailiffs. It is in the national interest to ensure consumers can limit their exposure to bailiffs in the first place. I thought it was the national interest that brought this coalition together in the first place?