People power works: We stopped the bailiffs!

After a long running campaign by Debt Justice and Acorn the Union, Manchester City Council has stopped using bailiffs to collect debt from people on council tax support. 

In the UK, 13 million people are in serious debt and struggling to pay the bills. That’s nearly the equivalent of the population of London, Manchester and Glasgow combined.

More and more of us are just one pay cheque from being in debt. Our research at Debt Justice found that the number of families in debt has risen by 60% since 2017. The effects that debt can have on mental health are well documented1, and the stress of a bailiff visit on top of that can be devastating2

But with a strong community behind you, it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s why over the last few years Debt Justice has been building grassroots campaign groups through community organising, so that people with experience of debt can collectively oppose measures that might make their lives worse.  

We’ve done exactly this in Manchester. Along with our friends from Acorn the Union, we started a people powered campaign to ban the bailiffs. Earlier this month, we had a significant victory as Manchester City Council agreed to never send enforcement agents to 48,000 households in receipt of council tax support.  

Here is Richard, our community organiser in the morning of the annoucement – 16 Jan 2024

The use of bailiffs to collect debt is a cruel and outdated practice. It also makes no economic sense as the council’s own data suggests the bailiff companies only recover in the region of 10% of the total debt.  

Throughout this campaign we have heard countless stories of how people have been threatened and intimidated in pursuit of council tax debt. One of the people involved in the campaign told us:

“This is when the bailiffs came out. It was really frightening. They put chains around the car and added on charges on top of what I owed. It’s made things more difficult. They told me I couldn’t set up a payment plan and had to pay straight away. I didn’t have the money so had to put it on my credit card. I had to pay off my debt by taking on more debt.” 

Together we built a grassroots campaign to end bailiff use that has now had a significant impact. 48,000 fewer families in Manchester will face a visit from the bailiffs, and new measures to support families in council tax debt are being introduced.

What needs to happen next

Whilst we welcome this significant step forward by Manchester City Council, we are calling on local authorities to implement more ethical and inclusive practices like Bristol and Hammersmith and Fulham councils which have gone even further and stopped using bailiffs altogether.

We are also calling for three national changes: 

  1. Higher standards 

Bailiffs are allowed to get away with poor practice and treating people unfairly because there is no independent regulator with statutory powers to ensure the bailiff industry upholds standards and treats people with respect. We continue to hear stories of bailiffs breaking the rules, something which Citizens Advice says they are doing on a ‘massive scale’. The Enforcement Conduct board 3, a new independent body which oversees the bailiff industry, should be given statutory powers, the legal teeth, that compel bailiffs to adhere to high standards. 

  1. Accountability 

The complaints system for reporting poor practice of bailiffs is deeply inadequate. The Enforcement Conduct Board says the system needs a serious overhaul to simplify it to give people who have faced unjust treatment from bailiffs a way to hold them to account. That’s why we support an independent and rigorous complaints mechanism that people in debt can have faith in.  

  1. Bailiff Fees and Profits 

Whichever way bailiff companies try to spin things, the fact remains that they are businesses and so are motivated by profit, which means they are incentivised to use threatening and overbearing behaviour. Recent reports prove that some in the industry are making huge profits, but the government is still insisting on a rise of 5% in bailiff fees, the fees that bailiffs charge people they are collecting debt from. The government should not even be contemplating higher fees during a cost of living crisis.  

There should be greater regulation of the sector, more inclusive and ethical support for people who are struggling and ultimately a plan to end this outdated practice for good.  

You can be part of making future campaigns possible by supporting our community organisers with a donation today

[1] https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mental-health/mental-illnesses-and-mental-health-problems/debt-and-mental-health
[2] People who have experienced a financial crisis in the last six months are nearly eight times more likely to think about suicide 
[3] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/jan/26/new-agency-aims-to-tackle-bad-image-bailiffs-enforcement-conduct-board 

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