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Mr. Iain Wright: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. She will be aware of the private rented sector review that we commissioned from Julie Rugg and David Rhodes of the university of York, and we announced our response to the Rugg review on 13 May. One key element of our proposals is mandatory legislation on letting agents. We think that it will be an important step in improving the quality of letting agentsboth for good landlords and good tenants.
Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): West Lancashire borough council tells me that if it were to reduce total rents by using the figure of 3.1 per cent., the formula would unfortunately have a perverse consequence when applied to the area. The council would have to reduce services by £67,000, and would risk a potential £500,000 problem on the housing revenue account. Will the Minister look at how those perverse consequences play out when applied to West Lancashire?
Margaret Beckett: Certainly I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I know that she has been anxious and extremely active on behalf of her constituency and local authority. We believe that there is actually some misunderstanding on the part of the authority about the implications of the change for it, but my officials are, I think, meeting representatives of her local authority this week, and we will work carefully through the detailed implications. I can certainly assure her and other Members that it is no part of our intention that any local authority will be disadvantaged by making the change.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), from the bottom of my heart on the changes that he has announced to the building regulation part G in order to reduce bathwater scalds in the home. I pay tribute to him on behalf of the Childrens Fire and Burn Trust, the Child Accident Prevention Trust and the British Burn Association, and the plastic surgeons and the anaesthetists who deal with some of the 600 individuals who suffer severe bathwater scalds each year. They say that because of my hon. Friends decision, a lot of people will be saved a lot of pain and suffering in the years to come.
Mr. Iain Wright: I thank my hon. Friend for those kind words, but I must say that through her leadership of the Hot Water Burns Like Fire campaign and her enormously positive work with my officials to provide the evidence to push forward the impact assessment that allowed us to make those changes, she has been at the very heart of the work to ensure that vulnerable people, such as young children and older people, can be safe in their baths. It is thanks to her hard work that we have been able to change the building regulations.
Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are due to meet the Secretary of State for Health next week to discuss the national burn care review in the north-west, which has examined a number of centres in Manchester and Liverpool. However, we found out today that the strategic health authority review group is about to issue a press release and make its recommendations public. How can that happen when we, as Members, are due to meet the Secretary of State next week so that he can hear our views? It pre-empts parliamentary rules and our position as MPs.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make requirements in respect of the use of force and forcible entry by bailiffs; to make provision for the reference to court of certain cases involving vulnerable clients; and for connected purposes.
The recession of the past 18 months has painfully demonstrated the precariousness of many peoples financial situation. Debt and debt recovery action have become a reality for ever larger numbers of people, and the arrival of a bailiff is, for many of those people, the ultimate trauma and humiliation. Indeed, we know of cases in which people have had heart attacks when the bailiffs have arrived. The mental and physical stress that people undergo is one of the worst things that will ever happen to them in their life.
Of course, bailiffs and debt recovery mechanisms have to be used. There are always people who abuse trust, neglect their finances and refuse to engage with their creditors, and, ultimately, they must pay an appropriate price. Indeed, in my constituency role, some examples have been brought to my attention whereby bailiffs have intervened with their clients and been helpful in the extreme. They have been informative and sympathetic, and they have helped people with their predicament. Yet the truth is that many of those subject to such enforcement action are desperate and vulnerable people, and many are also victims of error. For them, even the actions of bailiffs who behave entirely reasonablyand they do not always do thatare disproportionate and excessive.
As I do more and more work with constituents who owe money and I learn more about the process of debt recovery and the enforcement of fines, it has become clear to me that we have got the balance wrong, and that we need to review urgently the position that we are in. We must certainly not, in any circumstances, think of escalating the powers available to bailiffs, and the Government should rethink their approach to regulation.
The bailiff at the door has been an image in literature for many years; it was a common motif in Dickens novelsbut it is not a rare visitation on the feckless and the spendthrift, but an occurrence of staggering frequency. In my local authority alone, and in respect of just one debtarrears of council taxmore than 13,000 cases ended up in the hands of bailiffs over a three-year period. The council has stated that 9 per cent. of council tax accountsalmost one in 10end up in enforcement action. That is a staggering proportion.
What does it mean to be on the receiving end of such action? It means fear and trauma for people, particularly children. I have heard of moving cases in which children have refused to leave the house or have insisted on having the lights out at home because they are so frightened of a bailiff coming and seizing their television or computer. Being on the receiving end also means an escalation of the original debt, which simply compounds the problems that caused the financial crisis in the first place. Only last week I had to intervene in the case of a single parent with three children, one of whom is disabled.
Her parking fine, about which I was making representations, had escalated from an original £60 to £700 by the time the bailiffs arrived.
Another constituent wrote to tell me that she had two sets of bailiffs chasing the same debt. Payments had been made to and acknowledged by the council, but did not then appear on the system. She wrote:
This has left me in a desperate stateeach party refers me to the other, the fees are ever increasing and two companies are threatening the removal of goods for the same amount.
Some people are the victims of mistaken identity, while others are the victims of identity fraud. I have had cases in which action has been taken against one person because of another persons criminality. The point is that there is a lack of proportionality in the response, given the likelihood of those at the receiving end being vulnerable, or victims of mistaken identity.
The representations that I seek to make to Ministers through the Bill are threefold. The power of forcible entry into a persons home and the power for bailiffs even to use force against debtors are far too extreme to be given to civilian enforcement officers. The balance has been tilted too far against the householders right to be secure from trespass into their home. The present position overturns a long-standing common law tradition, by which a bailiff peacefully entering a property could not be prevented from going about his or her task. The emphasis was very much on an acceptance of that right in certain cases, but obviously the tradition stopped short of forcible entry.
The powers taken by the Government in the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 have not been brought into effect by regulation, and we await the regulations that will implement them. However, I believe that it is now clear that such powers should be repealed. Their excessive harshness should not be left on the statute book, even with an indication that the Government do not intend to implement them at present. The powers should be removed entirely.
Of course, the power to enter domestic premises forcibly to enforce the collection of criminal fines is already legal, and that too is creating appalling distress for many vulnerable households. Many of the criminal fines are levied on people on low incomes for offences such as the non-payment of TV licences, fare dodging and truancy. These are indeed offences, and it is only right that if an offence is deemed to have occurred, a penalty must be applied. However, the issue here, too, is one of proportionality, in terms of the sums involved and the manner of the enforcement deployed.
I also seek a statutory procedure requiring bailiffs to return cases involving vulnerable and impoverished debtors to the courts or the creditors, and powers to allow people subject to any bailiff action to apply to the courts for any bailiff warrant to be suspendedsomething that is missing from the 2007 Act. At present, that recourse is available only to people subject to county court bailiff warrants. People subject to bailiff warrants who have not been subject to county court applications have to rely on the good will and discretion of the creditor.
Some bailiffs and courts rely on case law, which holds that a distress warrant cannot be withdrawn once it has
been issued. That directly contradicts the national standards for enforcement agents, which suggests a procedure enabling the bailiff to return cases of vulnerable fine defaulters to the court. The procedure to bypass this anomaly recommended by the Ministry of Justice is to write a letter to the court asking for a re-hearing of the case. In practice, however, neither bailiffs nor fine defaulters seem to know this, and disproportionate fines are being paid by benefit claimants and other low-income groups, intensifying the poverty that pushed many of them into debt in the first place. My Bill would clear up the anomaly by enabling bailiffs to return vulnerable cases to the courts and creditors for reconsideration.
Finally, we need a statutory provision for bailiffs to accept affordable payments, with a definition of what that might mean in practice, so that before goods are seized or payment in full is demanded, an assessment is made of what can practically be afforded, at least in a single payment. By way of illustration, one of my constituents wrote to me a few weeks ago in the following terms:
I received a letter on the 10th of January notifying me that the bailiffs were to visit my house that same day, with regards to £191 arrears of Council Tax. I explained to someone in their office that I was not aware of that debt as I did not live at that address anymore. I made an arrangement to pay the money I did owe in instalments, the last of which£63was due on Easter Monday. I had no money at all, and called their office to make an arrangement. They said that unless I paid £195 today the bailiffs would come and carry my goods. I requested him to take the payment of £63 which clears my account, but he said the bailiffs will still come and carry my goods because I made the payment late and incurred a charge of £131!
My purpose today is not to put bailiffs in the firing line: some are good, some are bad, but all are operating in a framework that is not as it should be. Likewise, I am not singling out my own council, Westminster. Although I think that it makes too liberal a use of bailiffs, and it has certainly not developed the comprehensive advice and debt service that the local population needs, I do not think that it is uniquely bad. Indeed, I would commend officers in the finance department for the quality of service that they have offered to me in helping to deal with many of the difficult cases that I put to them. Nevertheless, we do have a grave problem with debt and debt recovery services, with disproportionately harsh penalties being applied to hundreds of thousandsif not millions, over yearsof some of the most vulnerable people in the country. I believe that they need greater protection, and above all, to be freed from the fear of the implementation of the excessively harsh powers held in reserve in the legislation.
That Ms Karen Buck, Martin Salter, Fiona Mactaggart, Mr. Gary Streeter, Dr. Alan Whitehead, Clive Efford, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Bob Russell, Mr. Andy Slaughter, Mr. Andrew Love and Mr. David Winnick present the Bill.
This Bill introduces measures to help complete the biggest overhaul of Britains immigration system in a generation, strengthening our borders, controlling migration and ensuring that those who come to the UK earn the right to citizenship.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Am I am alone in suspecting that this is an entirely content-free Bill? Will the Home Secretary explain in precisely what way the Bill will make it more difficult for people to come here whom we do not want to come here?
Over the past couple of years, we have made real progress in the immigration system. We have launched the UK Border Agency as a single force at the border, and we have toughened up our visa regime, effectively exporting the border by requiring biometric registration of all who wish to travel here on a visa. So far we have enrolled more than 4 million sets of fingerprints, flagging up thousands of cases of people who have swapped their identities.
We are already issuing ID cards for foreign nationals35,000 since last November. The points-based system is now fully operational, so that only those with the skills that we need can come to the UK to work and study.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con):
The Home Secretary has sought to persuade the House that somehow the Government have suddenly woken up to the problem and are doing something about it. When is she going to apologise to the British people for the overwhelming tide of migration that has hit this country? Since her Government came to power, five times as many are being admitted than were admitted under the Conservative Government. What has she to say to our constituents
when she has let 500,000 migrants into this country? Her system has completely failed. When is she going to apologise?
Jacqui Smith: Today is obviously a day for the wagging of fingers, but perhaps if the hon. Gentleman looked at the figures he would realise that the most recent figures for net migration actually show a decrease. I shall go on to explain the Bill, and how the action that this Government have taken has enabled us to control migration to the benefit of this country.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Before that interruption, the Home Secretary was talking about the impact of the Governments points system. Will she have a chance this afternoon to develop the ideas that the Government clearly have in mind to encourage people to come here to work but to break the link whereby people who do so automatically become citizens?
Jacqui Smith: Yes, I can assure my right hon. Friend that I will take the opportunity to develop that argument and talk about how the infrastructure that we have now put in place enables us both to control the number of people coming for entry and, as he says, to move on to the next stage of reforms to citizenship and settlement.
In July 2007, in one of my first acts as Home Secretary, I announced plans to establish the single border force. Already among the most secure in the world, Britains borders have been further strengthened through the success of the UK Border Agency in proving its worth. Since April 2008, better deployment and the use of new technology have led to the seizure of illegal drugs worth more than £340 million and record numbers of dangerous weapons. Last year we prevented more than 30,000 individual clandestine attempts to enter the UK illegally. We have used the e-Borders system to screen nearly 90 million passengers, leading to more than 3,000 arrests including significant counter-terrorist interventions.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does the Home Secretary believe that there should be some sort of limit on how many people come into the country, given the impact on public services, including housing? If so, what should it be each year?
Jacqui Smith: Yes, I believe that we should control migration to the benefit of this country. That is why the points-based system, even tier 2, has led to 12 per cent. fewer people coming in than would have been the case if the system had not been in place last year.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): My understanding is that approximately 80 per cent. of the people who move to this country are residents or citizens of one of the other 26 member states of the European Union. Are the Government prepared to reconsider the free movement of labour in the European Union?
Jacqui Smith: Free movement, and its relationship to trade and the free market, is an important element of our membership of the EU. We have taken action on new member states to ensure that, through the workers registration schemewhich the Opposition opposedwe are clear about being able to count and tackle benefit entitlement. However, we should maintain that significant ability to travel freely and work in the EU.
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