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Various examples have been cited by citizens advice bureaux, including my local citizens advice bureau. A CAB in Somerset was looking after a 44-year-old woman who had been visited by a bailiff collecting
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council tax arrears. The bailiff said that he wanted immediate payment for the full sum owing. He tried to enter and stated that he would go to all the rooms and remove children’s possessions, white goods—including the cooker—and all furniture. The bailiff stated that for every half an hour he sat outside the house he would charge £50, which he did after sitting there for exactly 30 minutes. Owing to the bailiff’s threatening behaviour, the woman’s partner made a payment, but only by using the rent money, which moved the debt problem elsewhere.

A CAB in Bedfordshire told me about a woman whom it was looking after. Sadly, her husband died relatively young, and the next day a bailiff called at her house about council tax arrears. The woman explained that her husband had just died and that because he had not made a will, and she would therefore have to go through probate, there would not be enough money in the estate to pay the council tax. She thus asked the bailiff to wait for a while, but he refused and said that unless she paid at least £150 then and there, he would seize her goods. He also threatened her with arrest. The behaviour of that bailiff was completely contrary to the Government’s guidelines for the enforcement industry, which make it clear that people in vulnerable situations should be protected.

While a minority of bailiffs behave in such a way, there is a need for proper outside regulation, which brings us to the two key amendments in the group. New clause 2 relates to the Security Industry Authority. For those who have not been following our debates carefully, I should explain that the SIA is a private sector organisation approved by the Government that regulates various private sector organisations. Under the Government’s plans, private bailiffs, rather than court and Government-employed bailiffs, will be regulated by the SIA. We support those proposals because, as we said in Committee, if the Government will not introduce full independent regulation not just for private bailiffs but for the whole industry, we will reluctantly accept the second-best option of the SIA, because a step in the right direction is better than no step at all.

In essence, new clause 2 provides that the greater powers for bailiffs under the Bill, especially powers to enter people’s homes, should not come into effect until SIA regulation is implemented. We have various concerns that are relevant to new clause 2. Can the Minister tell the House when the new SIA system will be in place? I am concerned that it may not be for quite a while, which means that it is even more important to include in the Bill the provisions proposed by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. The Bill may be in its final stages—it will have its Third Reading this afternoon and will in due course receive Royal Assent—but we need to hear from the Minister exactly when the regulation under the SIA will be in place.

1.30 pm

Can the Minister also tell us how the proposed new certification scheme will work alongside regulation by the SIA? We discussed the matter in Committee at some length so she is well aware that the present certification scheme is flawed because many local authorities do not insist on their contracted bailiffs complying with the existing scheme. Will the new
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scheme work properly? One of the problems under the SIA plans is that a debtor will not be able to get redress even if the bailiff loses his or her licence.

I want to pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, which causes me concern, too. We have been told time and again of the feeling in the bailiff industry and among many organisations working hard to try to protect the vulnerable, such as the Church of England, the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, the Child Poverty Action Group and the CAB, that because bailiffs collect billions of pounds for central and local government the Government have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, with regulation as light-touch as possible.

Philip Evans, chair of the Enforcement Law Reform Group, made a telling remark the other day, which he will not mind my quoting:

His organisation is not like the CAB or the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, whose approach might be that most bailiffs should be looked at suspiciously; his were the remarks of someone who represents the enforcement and bailiff industry. The industry, too, is calling for greater regulation, because it realises that the actions of a small minority of bailiffs—including the examples to which I referred and many more—are doing huge damage to the reputation of bailiffs generally. That is why the industry wants regulation.

It is worth looking at what other outside third parties have said about regulation. Professor J. Beatson, professor of public law at Cambridge university, produced a report for the Lord Chancellor in 2000, which had quite an impact on the subsequent Green Paper. Professor Beatson made it clear that he felt that independent regulation for bailiffs was absolutely essential. He said that the arguments for bailiffs having extra powers could be countenanced only in the context of proper outside regulation.

Can the Minister comment on why the Government did not follow the recommendations in the Green Paper and why they have not listened to the views of many organisations, such as the Enforcement Services Association and the Association of Civil Enforcement Agencies, as well as the voluntary bodies that spend their time trying to help vulnerable people? Yes, we are taking a small step forward with the SIA. I do not want to be churlish, because we advocated that move in Committee; we pushed hard for it and we thank the Minister for agreeing. We may even be entitled to give ourselves a pat on the back for that small step forward, but it does not go far enough, especially when bailiffs are being given more powers.

From the examples given in Committee and in this debate, we know that in many cases bailiffs misrepresent their legal powers. People are knocking on doors pretending to be someone they are not, which is why new clause 4, proposed by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, says that bailiffs should wear a distinctive uniform or carry more than merely a card as identification. We debated that matter in Committee and the Minister was not happy about the idea of bailiffs turning up in uniform. She took the view that it was bad enough for a vulnerable person living in a block of flats if the police came round, so if
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a bailiff in uniform came to their flat, word would quickly get out that they were in debt. I entirely accept the need to strike a balance, but the existing situation is not satisfactory.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): In Committee, we discussed how bailiffs work with business people and how they enter business premises. I raised the case of one of my constituents who runs a fish and chip shop and was threatened with the removal of his frying equipment—not that he could work out how that would be done, as the bailiff had only a car. None the less, the threat was a real one. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to ensure that enforcement must be circumspect so that people are not prevented from carrying on their trade so that they can earn the money to pay their debts? Perhaps the Minister could refer to that issue when she sums up.

Mr. Bellingham: I entirely agree. We may cover such matters when we move on to the fourth group, where our amendments Nos. 19 and 12 relate to tools of the trade, so the hon. Gentleman may like to support us in the Lobby to reinforce his point, if the Government have not listened. However, I do not want to push your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because we shall come to enforcement by taking control of goods, and the procedures involved, under a later group. At present, we are talking specifically about uniforms, regulation and control of enforcement agents, but I agree with the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that all these concerns are linked and there is a significant overlap.

To sum up, society is changing, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby pointed out. People are becoming far more indebted. When the Committee was dealing with provisions covering individual voluntary arrangements and other methods of sorting out debt, one of the things that concerned us was the sheer scale of debt being built up in the UK. When that is combined with the number of extra offences, the extra powers being given to bailiffs and the small minority of those bailiffs who are a disgrace to their profession, we can see that we need more than a system of voluntary regulation. It is not just a matter of regulating private sector bailiffs; we need a better system of regulation for the whole industry, which is why we shall support new clause 5.

Vera Baird: First, may I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) how much I would have welcomed him to the Committee? He brings to the issue the particular strength of feeling he derives from the personal experience suffered by his daughter, which he set out in the Chamber at a lamentably late hour of the night some months ago. He brings to it, too, his usual characteristic concern for the poor and underprivileged sectors of his constituency. I, too, have poor and underprivileged sectors in my constituency, and I would have welcomed his work in Committee.

Both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) contextualised the changes we have to make when they spoke of the rising tide of debt. It is the Government’s view that whether one, 10 or however many people are misused by bailiffs who exercise their powers excessively it is too
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many, and we will stop that happening. I assure my hon. Friend he is wrong to say that this part of the legislation is the worst part. In my view, it is one of the most important parts, and perhaps the best.

I reject the assertion of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk that the Government have not listened. We have been most consultative. We consulted as we put together the documents that preceded the Bill, we consulted before its publication and we have consulted throughout its progress through the House. I do not accept that vigorous criticisms can be levelled at the use of penalty notices and so on for lower-level crimes. They seem to me to be appropriate, proportionate and speedy ways of remedying minor abuses and misbehaviour. The legislation on the power to enter premises to impose penalties or to ensure that they are paid is not in the present Bill, but was passed more than two years ago, richly supported by the Conservatives.

The SIA is not a private industry body; it is a non-departmental public body. Let me make that clear, lest I forget to emphasise the point in the course of the debate.

I shall now deal systematically with the amendments in the group. On the question of certification running alongside the SIA’s jurisdiction, it is intended that the certification process should endure only until the authority takes over responsibility for licensing.

Simon Hughes: I apologise if the Minister was about to tell us this, but we were hoping that she will update us regarding the time scale for the new authority taking over control.

Vera Baird: It is likely to be at least two years before the SIA is in that position. I cannot be any more specific than that. However, we are reassured that, in the meantime, the strength of the county court certification process that we will introduce in a renewed and increasingly powerful way will ensure that there is rigorous control.

To give due courtesy to those who have contributed to the debate, I shall deal with the points they made one at a time, but first let me say to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, who says that good bailiffs are anxious to have regulation because they do not want their reputation to be diminished by bad bailiffs, that he is obviously correct. I pay tribute to the excellent service done by a very large proportion of the enforcement agent industry and agree with him that it is not the majority who behave in the appalling way described by many agencies in the course of the Bill’s passage through the House. I can say—with no fear of contradiction, I hope—that they do want proper regulation, and that is exactly what they are going to get under the Bill. We are determined about that.

1.45 pm

As the House knows, the long-term intention is that all enforcement agents will be licensed by a totally independent regulator—an NDPB, which is what the SIA is—and we are confident that in due course the SIA will be the appropriate body for that task. Consultation has been going on since January and the responses are being analysed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the
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Member for Great Grimsby for his contribution to that consultation. I know from that contribution, from the Adjournment debate I mentioned and from his comments today that he is concerned about the role of the SIA, but I emphasise that we believe that it will, in due course, be the correct body.

Perhaps it is even more important that I say to my hon. Friend, as strongly as I can, that we are determined to ensure that the enforcement agency industry is properly licensed and regulated and that the cowboys are removed from it as soon as the Bill becomes law. Were we to take the course that he advocates in new clause 6 and create a new authority, it would take very much longer to set a body up from scratch than will be needed to make sure that the SIA is in the right shape to take on the task. In addition, it would cost a considerable sum and, in our view, it would not serve any purpose because we are confident that the SIA can be brought into a position to be every bit as effective as a new body, and more quickly than a new body could be.

The SIA is, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said, already in existence. It is building up its expertise as a regulator, which is an important reason to use an existing body, and it has the right tools to encourage compliance and to improve standards within the industry. I acknowledge that, at the outset, the organisation had some teething problems, but it has addressed them. It has a new chair—my noble Friend Baroness Henig—and a new chief executive. I have every confidence that those new people will continue the good progress that the SIA has made.

In addition, the Government have given assurances that the SIA will take on the licensing of enforcement agents only when it is in a position to do so. The Government will be the judge of whether it is in such a position, and I have made clear what the Government intend should flow from regulation. If hon. Members put together my assertion of our political intention in terms of proper regulation, licensing and control and the fact that we will hand over that function to the SIA only when we are satisfied that it is ready to take on the whole task, I hope that they will be significantly reassured.

In the meantime, there is in the Bill an enhanced and extended certification process, which gives us an interim solution and will help us as we work toward full independent regulation. Other than Crown officials—I shall deal with them in a minute—no bailiff or enforcement agent will be able to function unless he is certificated by a county court judge. Almost all of the complaints voiced by various bodies are about bailiffs who are not currently regulated; when the legislation comes into force, they will simply not be able to function without going through the new certification process. As a result, we should get rid at a stroke of a large number of the problems that have rightly been brought to public attention in our debates in Committee and on the Floor of the House.

We need a workable system for complaint and redress, and we intend to have one—let me make that clear, as well. That can be done both through the courts and through regulation. My officials are strongly committed to developing appropriate procedures with their colleagues in the SIA and the Home Office
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and with stakeholders across the system. We particularly need to consider what role alternative dispute resolution might play.

The primary role of the SIA is, of course, to manage the licensing of the sectors it regulates and to raise the standards of professionalism and skill, but we have made it clear that the authority will also be able to deal with complaints. If it investigates a complaint, it will be able to use its powers to issue warnings, or to revoke or modify a licence. The House will recall that schedule 12 sets out, not quite a code of conduct, but a series of requirements on the enforcement industry and the means of redress where those requirements are not met. We intend that all the requirements in the schedule be read into the certificate and ultimately—when the SIA becomes responsible—the licence. Therefore, the requirements in the Bill will follow across into the certification process and then the licensing regime.

Mr. Bellingham: The Minister mentioned complaints against private bailiffs, but what would happen if one wanted to complain about a court bailiff—an employee of the court? One would presumably go through either her Department, or the organisation involved with the day-to-day running of the court. Presumably one could not go through the SIA.

Vera Baird: No, and if I may, I shall come on to Crown public employees in a minute, because as the hon. Gentleman knows, they have a different status, and we intend them to keep it. However, there will be an effective complaints procedure relating to them, too.

Simon Hughes: In relation to the interim period and the certification by county court judges, the Minister will know well from her experiences, as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and I do from ours, that county court judges vary in style, tradition and reputation. Some appear to be very much the friend of the landlord, and others seem to be much more the friend of the citizen. What guarantee is there that the process of certification will be a hands-on process, and that the county court judges will be accountable, through that system, to the Ministry of Justice, so that they do their job properly if there are real concerns?

Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman appositely points out that this is a sort of barrister-fest, given the background of the three Front-Bench spokespeople. I had not really digested that point, but I assert that our proceedings are none the worse for that. I have never come across partisanship in a judge; let me make that totally clear. Not every county court judge will have the responsibility that we are discussing, and there are county court judges who have those responsibilities now. It makes obvious sense that if there is a major firm of bailiffs in an area, the local county court judge becomes much more experienced. They are exposed to the risks and difficulties of the process, and therefore become masters, or mistresses, of dealing with them. I say mistresses, as one or two of the county courts judges are women. It is our intention to build on that expertise. We intend the county court regime to be imposed with considerable rigour. As I say, we intend to put the requirements of schedule 12 forward as part of the certification process.

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As hon. Members will remember from Committee, bailiffs will have to be trained before they qualify for the certification process. They will also have to put up a bond, and the judge can order the forfeiture of that bond, or part of it, if the bailiff is in breach of the terms of their certification. As hon. Members will remember, there is a regime in schedule 12 for bringing actions, whether for damages and related loss, or abuse of power. Pretty well every remedy that one could wish for against an enforcement agent is listed in schedule 12. As I have said, we intend those remedies to carry across the enforcement industry, but they can be applied to the county court.

I hope that we have a reasonably foolproof framework, because that is certainly our intention, notwithstanding the slightly uncomfortable transitional phase that must take place. I hope that we have a satisfactory framework in place. The SIA supports the penalties principle and the characteristics for enforcing regulations that are featured in Professor Macrory’s work. Over the next few months, the SIA will consider how the Macrory toolkit of new regulatory sanctions can be integrated with its existing approach, which is largely based on compliance. In partnership with the Home Office, the SIA will consider what steps it needs to take to access those new tools. In particular, the SIA will look at how the additional sanctions could help to support its compliance activity and its overall aim of protecting the public.

Paragraph 66 of schedule 12, to which I have already made free reference, sets out new remedies that will be available to the debtor against an enforcement agent who breaches the provisions of the new law. As I have said, the remedies include damages for loss. There is a procedure that will enable the court to deal with complaints such as those relating to the overcharging of fees. The enforcement agent would be liable if anyone whom he takes on to premises to assist him breaches any of the provisions in schedule 12. The assistant, and of course the enforcement agent, will be personally liable if they commit an offence under ordinary criminal law.

Under clause 58, an offence is committed if a person purports to act as an enforcement agent without being authorised to do so. The maximum penalty—and it is not a penny too much, in my view—is £5,000. Additionally, there are other avenues of redress, for example through the local authority ombudsman, if the enforcement agent is sent by the local authority. Obviously, we will have to develop appropriate complaints handling procedures with the SIA, the Home Office and all stakeholders, so that the SIA is always informed of complaints that require targeted intervention and investigation, however they fit into the framework. It is primarily through regulation that we will drive up standards across the industry. In particular, as I have said, strict competences and conditions will be set for individuals who apply for a licence.

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